THERE was a time, not that long ago, when a visit to Scotland as the third stopover in a four-match tour would represent a welcome shift down in gear for South Africa, before cranking things up again to finish the trip with a flourish against another one of European rugby’s big-hitters – but that is no longer the case.
Scotland may not have beaten the Springboks since 2010, and that was their only win from 13 meetings since 2003. Overall, South Africa have won 21 of 26 matches between the two sides. But recent form indicates that this will be a far closer contest than the history books suggest.
Certainly, Springbok head coach Rassie Erasmus’ decision to make only one optional (and one enforced) change to the team which started last week against France in Paris can be taken as an indication of just how big a challenge he is expecting at Murrayfield on Saturday.
“I wouldn’t say that we as players and coaches always felt that when we played Scotland, but I think the natural feeling outside the team – from media and fans – would be that it should be a walkover, in the past,” said Eramsus at yesterday’s team announcement.
“But now we all agree that we’re not sure who is going to win this game on Saturday and I think that is well done by Scotland for a country with the amount of professional players they have. It’s wonderful what the guys are doing, the coaches, the director of rugby and everybody who is involved. I think it’s wonderful to come here and they’re performing the way they do.”
This will be the third start in as many weeks for 11 of the 15 players named in the team yesterday, and after two ferocious encounters against England and France during the last fortnight at the end of a gruelling southern hemisphere season, there was a bit of speculation in the South African press about the squad being rotated in order to freshen things up ahead of the tour finale against Wales next Saturday – but that was not an option Erasmus gave serious consideration to as he looks to build experience and develop combinations during the run-in to next year’s World Cup in Japan.
Ambrose Papier has been given his first start at scrum-half in place of Faf de Klerk (who has been released back to Sale Sharks), while RG Snyman has come in at lock so that Peter Steff du Toit can switch to the back-row in place of the injured Warren Whitely. Erasmus had hoped to have Eben Etzbeth back from a foot injury this week, but he has failed a fitness test.
“I look through the team sheet now and I see the least amount of caps we have is four,” said Erasmus. “There were a lot of games [during this season’s Rugby Championship] when we had one or two caps and we were struggling to get continuity for various reasons, but without a doubt we’re coming to play a team that everybody knows their home record, and everybody knows their style of play which is difficult to contain – so the better the combinations, the better chance we have.
“I think I’ve said it a few times in the past couple of weeks that teams [ranked] three to six or seven in the world – including Scotland and ourselves – are pretty close to one another I think number one [New Zealand] and two [Ireland] are pretty clear but after that it’s a close race. On their day anybody can beat anybody.
“To change a lot now before a Test match like this won’t give us benefit in terms of freshness just for the sake of it. Scotland are too good a team to make too many changes.”
The home camp have made no secret of their respect for the physical challenge South Africa will pose on Saturday. While Erasmus stressed that there is more to this Springbok team than bulk and power, he did concede that the battle up front will be key.
“I hope it’s not just that, I hope it’s the way our back-line attacks, the way our kicking game works – but we expect our forwards to give us a good base,” he said. “However, Scotland will have the same expectations – they’ve got a few big guys in that pack – so the forward pack which delivers on the day will unleash the back line.
“I think, if you compare Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and Sean Maitland with our back three, they’re very much in the same mould – enjoy attack, great individual skills and good in the air. Then when you compare Huw Jones with Jesse Kriel, it’s a really well-matched back-line,” he added, before turning his attention to Finn Russell.
“Obviously, he pulls all the strings. Coaching Munster against him four times in a row, he’s mostly on-song and when he’s on-song he’s hard to contain. He sees space well and controls the speed of the game well. I wouldn’t say everything revolves around him, but when he’s on song they have a wonderful game. Him and Gregor Townsend obviously have a great relationship and understand one another, so hopefully we’ll find a way to contain him.”
South Africa: W le Roux; S Nkosi, J Kriel, D de Allende, A Dyantyi; H Pollard, E Papier; S Kitshoff, M Marx, F Malherbe, R Snyman, F Mostert, S Kolisi©, P du Toit, D Vermeulen. Subs: B Mbonambi, T du Toit, V Koch, L de Jager, F Louw, I van Zyl, E Jantjies, C Kolbe.