South Africa may have avoided defeat in Edinburgh but they hardly avoided embarrassment.
Scotland proved the Boks’ weakest opposition since they faced Italy in June, and yet, the Boks provided their weakest performance of the year. Peter de Villiers and his charges cannot take any confidence or momentum from this errant showing, and they’ll start from scratch come Monday in the build up to England.
Many critics spared the rod following the narrow win in Cardiff. Sure it was ugly, but it was a deserved win against the Six Nations champions. Execution was the Boks’ primary shortcoming against Wales, as structurally they produced a sound display. They talked about sharpening their game for Scotland, and everybody expected a one-sided massacre at Murrayfield. If the Boks played badly, they’d win by 30. If they played well, a 60-point margin was not an impossibility.
But the Boks played badly and in the end were only saved by a piece of Jaque Fourie brilliance. Some may argue that Jean de Villiers saved the Boks with an intercept try in Cardiff given that five points was the winning margin over Wales, but the difference is clear when you consider how the Boks controlled periods of that game whereas in Edinburgh they lacked any semblance of control.
South Africa missed Fourie du Preez at scrumhalf, not just for his tactical kicking but for his ability to read and control the game. The Bok forwards were getting pummeled in the scrums and collisions. To have a halfback of Du Preez’s quality would have alleviated the pressure on flyhalf Ruan Pienaar and would surely have seen fewer poor decisions in Saturday’s Test. Should Du Preez not recover from injury ahead of the Twickenham clash, the Boks could be in trouble.
Du Preez alone cannot save the Boks, as there is another more profound problem. Du Preez and Pienaar combined effectively in Cardiff as the Boks returned to a more traditional direct approach, but this approach was hardly evident at Murrayfield. Dick Muir spoke about giving the ball air in the build up, but the Boks forwards failed to provide a decent platform. South Africa played too fast and too loose and you could see the mistakes coming from a mile off. While they did well to get it wide, they battled to cut the Scotland line.
Even if the Boks win next Saturday, you have to question whether this tour has been a success. From the weekend’s showing at Twickenham, England don’t look particularly threatening as a unit, and the world champions would still be expected to prevail. However, the Boks has regressed rather than progressed in the space of the week. They were worse in Edinburgh than they were in Cardiff, and they also reverted to the chaotic helter-skelter game plan seen in their disastrous Tri-Nations campaign.
It’s frightening to think that De Villiers and co are heading back in that direction. De Villiers may blurt responses like “look at the scoreboard” but the truth is it doesn’t make for pretty reading when you are scraping home against Scotland. The Tri-Nations remains the standard by which the Boks should be measured, and they should gauge their performances by how their other Sanzar partners fair against these weaker northern teams. New Zealand won ugly against Scotland last week, but won by 26 points. Australia are in a rebuilding phase, but managed to beat England by 14 points at home. Why can’t South Africa replicate that? Why indeed.
The Boks beat Australia 53-8 in August, and in doing so set the standard. The formula was followed to a degree in Cardiff, although the application and execution proved flawed. Murrayfield was outright regression, as the Boks revisited a failed experiment. It begs the question, would a loss to Scotland have been enough to make De Villiers see sense? The British & Irish Lions tour is around the corner, and the Boks will get thumped at home if they play like they did at Murrayfield.
South Africa should beat England next weekend and this will give De Villiers the desired three out of three result. But what has the tour achieved? There’s been talk about consistency and continuity, and the team selection has reflected the talk but the game plan has contradicted the talk. While three wins from three is the priority, there are other goals on this tour in the context of next year’s Lions series. On current form, you’d have to say the Boks will head into that series without the desired momentum.