RYAN VREDE, in Edinburgh, watched the Springboks deliver an almighty defensive performance in the second half to beat Scotland 21-10 at Murrayfield.
This was not a wholly clinical performance from the Springboks on a number of fronts, but one that will nonetheless please Heyneke Meyer and galvanise his side ahead of the sternest Test of the tour in London next week.
It was undoubtedly a victory built, once again, on brutal, accurate and disciplined defence. This has been the hallmark of all the Springboks’ victories this season, and they will have to sustain this if they are to become the dominant team they envisage being.
At the heart this success has been Francois Louw. Irrepressible and seemingly omnipresent since his installment in the side, Louw is now surely among the world’s pre-eminent opensiders and undoubtedly the most valuable player in the Springboks’ ranks at this stage.
Louw was not alone in his excellence. His back row brothers Willem Alberts and Duane Vermeulen shone on attack and defence. The trio are gradually growing into a triumvirate, formidable in their combination, all possessing power and fearlessness in equal measure. Their form and indeed that of Eben Etzebeth, who surely was created for the sole purpose of playing Test rugby, and others like the industrious Adriaan Strauss and unrelenting Jannie du Plessis, is promising, not only for the showdown with England but beyond that. Meyer has the makings of a truly great Springbok pack, and the addition of Bismarck du Plessis, Andries Bekker and Schalk Burger next year will further amplify their potency.
There was little to excite from an expansive attacking perspective, but this is how it will be until the back division settles and finds cohesion and synergy. Meyer has been criticised for myriad reasons, but today he deserves praise for what was a clear directive to pound Scotland into submission through his heavies. The hosts never looked capable of repelling their surges in the first half, losing the gainline battle which consequently robbed them of contesting the breakdown in a meaningful way. When the momentum swung they looked equally inept at bossing the tackle fight, which undermined their cause.
For the first 40 the Springboks were able to control possession and, more pertinently, territory, from where they relied on the best rolling maul in the game to ravage the Scots. Pat Lambie banked two penalties before converting Strauss’s try after a maul.
So dominant were the Springboks that their hosts’ first entry into their 22m came in the 35th minute and their ambition was duly blunted by the brilliant Louw, who earned a breakdown penalty on his 5m line. It was 14-3 at the break, with the Springboks looking supremely comfortable.
That changed in the second half, with Scotland summoning a spirit that was reminiscent of the one that drove the Springboks to a second-half turnaround at Lansdowne Road last week. Strauss got his brace, anticipating and intercepting a pass, and Lambie added the extras, but that was the sum total of the time the Springboks spent in Scotland’s territory.
The home crowd’s belief was stirred with a well worked try off the lineout, scrumhalf Henry Pyrgos slicing through a hole engineered by intelligent splitting of the Springboks’ lineout formation. Greig Laidlaw converted and Scotland’s siege continued unabated. The composure and unfailingly accuracy the Springboks exhibited under extreme pressure was inspiring. They will take heat for what will be perceived as a struggle. But this Scotland team scored three tries against the world champion All Blacks last week. That is the perspective that should inform any assessment of this match.
The tourists held on, even when Flip van der Merwe was sin binned for cynical play. Are there major improvements needed in the week ahead? Absolutely. England are a far superior side and more capable of exploiting the Springboks’ deficiencies. An attacking edge continues to elude them. They again failed to convert their first-half time in the goal zone into more points, which would have made their passage more comfortable.
But this inexperienced Springbok side has passed another important test, one a superior team failed in 2010. Their education continues. The journey is long.