Scotland captain Stuart Hogg felt his team conspired against itself rather than succumb to the play of the opposition but Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber had a more realistic view of the 30-15 win scored by the world champions at Murrayfield on Saturday.
While Hogg felt the Scots had controlled the first half and that was why they led 10-8 at the break, the reality is that the stats were already stacked against his team at that point. Yes, the Scots showed why they have been the best defensive team in the northern hemisphere for the past few years by heroically repelling the Boks, but when at the same time as you have to do so much defending you’re getting thumped in the scrums and under the kosh in other aspects of forward play, it takes a lot out of you.
And when you are playing against a team that probably boasts the two best front rows in world rugby interchanging during the course of the game, and the one that comes on at the halfway point boasts mobility and skills outside of the primary phases such as Messrs Malcolm Marx, Vincent Koch and Steven Kitshoff do, then there’s something quite inevitable about the eventual outcome.
While Hogg might have been telling his players at halftime that they were in control of the game despite being bullied in the scrums and spending much of the game pinned in their own territory, Nienaber was in the Bok change-room telling them that they were on target, that the plan was working.
The South African emblem is a leaping antelope, but listening to Nienaber speak in the post match online press conference, you might just as easily have imagined it was a snake. The way the Boks play, you’d be inclined to liken them to a python that constricts it’s victims and suffocates the life out of them, but Nienaber had a more venomous snake in mind.
“We have said it from the start that we are fortunate to have two quality front rows. We have the guys who start and they lay the foundation and then the guys who come on have specific roles to fulfil,” said Nienaber.
“We had a plan today and it worked for us. Everyone looks at the Scotland attack, but they are the best northern hemisphere defensive team and they are very tough to break down. In the first 12 minutes of the game we had all the territory and possession and they showed how good they are defensively, but we kept knocking and knocking and that takes up their energy.
“What our guys do in the scrum also saps energy. It took a while for us to get control of the game, but when a snake bites you it takes a while for the venom to take effect. You don’t die immediately. The venom works on you and then you die. We instructed the starting front row not to save their energy, to throw everything into achieving the objective we’d set them, and then the minute we saw that the objective had been achieved, we took them off and brought the other front row on.
“The front row and the players who start and who come on later is not a set thing. In the Lions series you will remember Trevor Nyakane coming on for Kitsie (Steven Kitshoff) and helping us change the game. Sometimes in our selection we look at what we feel the game is going to deliver. Sometimes we get that wrong, but today we got that right.”
They did indeed, with Koch, Kitshoff and Marx all contributing handsomely to the Bok control of the breakdowns in a second half where initially it took a while for a scrum to be set. Whereas in the first half it took just a few minutes for the first scrum of the game to be set, much quicker than the 36 minutes it took in Cardiff last week, in the third quarter there was a scarcity of set scrums.
Nyakane, Bongi Mbonambi and the impressive Ox Nche were magnificent in their primary function in that first half, and while the Boks did get contested at an early lineout, they became more dominant in that phase as the game wore on.
Unlike Hogg, who said his team had shot itself in the foot, and it was not good play by South Africa but “us letting ourselves down”, Scotland coach Gregor Townsend had a more realistic view.
“We knew we faced a massive set piece challenge, the Springboks are among the best in the world at lineouts and scrums, and we struggled in those areas,” said Townsend.
“Having said that, our maul defence was very good, and we did well to hold out so well against a team that has scored a lot of maul tries, not just this year but over several seasons. My message to the boys after the game was that we have got to just take this defeat on board. We are as disappointed as our supporters no doubt are, but we need to learn from the experience.
“We play against South Africa in two years time, in the World Cup, and we need to be better then for this experience. We need to learn from the opposition, and South Africa are world champions for a reason.”