As mentioned over on the TV page, I’m slightly slammed with work at the moment, but there are three genuinely tasty fixtures in this weekend’s second Round of the November Internationals that simply have to be acknowledged. So here are the things that struck me from each of the three, starting with Scotland and South Africa. I’d love to cover Wales and Fiji and Italy versus Argentina, as these matches also have the potential to provide some serious entertainment, but unfortunately time just doesn’t permit this week.
Last weekend’s dustup at Murrayfield between Scotland and Australia may have been a low scoring affair but it certainly didn’t disappoint in terms of excitement. It was a helter skelter affair from both sides, and if you liked running rugby then it was clear from the opening five minutes that you’d come to the right place. It was a game where as good as your attack was the defence was better. Throw in the inevitable errors and as a result it was never going to be a try fest per se, but there were countless attempts at crossing the whitewash from both sides which made for a very entertaining match. Scotland though will want to cut down the error rate and slow things down a bit, as if they thought the Australian defence was good, they are likely to find the Springbok version suffocating.
South Africa against Wales last weekend, consolidated their physical game plan in the rain while at the same time continuing to be more cautiously adventurous and backing the forward momentum of their set piece play. As we saw in the final Test of the Rugby Championship against New Zealand, South Africa are growing increasingly confident with hanging on to the ball as opposed to a kicking game that simply hands possession back to the opposition. In short, there’s not too much point in having one of the world’s best units of heavy artillery if you’re not willing to use it to put points on the board and create an attacking platform. It’s a refreshing change and it’s cleary working for South Africa.
Scotland will have to match the Springbok brawn up front as much as they will have to use the imagination of their backs to try and unpick a defensive system that looks rather impenetrable to say the least. It will be a very different Test of character than what they faced against Australia, but if they can get through this both in one piece injury wise and holding their own on the scoreboard then they will be more than just a little excited about the Six Nations looming just around the corner.
Scotland vs South Africa – Saturday, November 13th – Murrayfield
While Scotland’s win over Australia last weekend was a Test of how well they can hold up against sides like the Wallabies who love to play at speed, this weekend’s match is very much a test of Scotland’s staying power under intense physical pressure. The Springbok squad that rolls out onto the pitch on Saturday in Murrayfield is not for the faint hearted. It’s full of big bruising units who increasingly look to attack as much as they defend. In short, it’s going to be a game of attrition and Scotland while pleased with their win over Australia, will be aware that they’ve only had a six day turnaround for this one.
South Africa arrive in Murrayfield on a roll, and last weekend’s titanic struggle with Wales was engrossing stuff to say the least. South Africa held on in the foul Cardiff weather to secure an ultimately convincing win against a solid Welsh effort. While their often criticised game plan hasn’t changed much, it has become more effective while at the same time becoming slightly more adventurous and clinical. They seem to have realised the ball is their friend and hanging on to it off the back of some impressive work by their forward pack can pay dividends. They know that given half a chance Scotland’s set of maverick backs will run at them all day and as a result it will be better to be with the ball than without it.
A former Bull meets another
There were several standout performances from Scotland last Sunday, but loosehead prop Pierre Schoeman continued to impress and Coach Gregor Townsend will be relying on his uncompromising physicality to match what he knows South Africa will bring to the party. The South African import who learnt his trade with the Bulls under 20s, goes up against a senior Bull in the shape of the equally impressive Trevor Nyakane. Nyakane is having the best season of his career to date and the battle at scrum time between him and Schoeman will be a real gauge of how well Scotland will be able to face up to the meat grinder South Africa are bringing to Murrayfield. If Scotland can remain competitive at the coalface it will determine how well the rest of their pack will front up. In Schoeman, Hooker Stuart McInally and Zander Fagerson they have a trio who should be able hold their own.
Is it a bird – no it’s a Hooker!
Given Canada’s dismal performances at the moment, there must be more than a few wondering how we never got our hands on Toronto born Ewan Ashman. The Hooker got involved in last weekend’s match far earlier than he expected after having to come off the bench for George Turner after only 12 minutes in. To say that it was a debut that took the rugby press by storm is an understatement. The Scottish hooker turned in a outstanding 68 minute shift culminating in a try that saw him jot the ball down in the corner with some acrobatics to keep the ball and his feet away from the touch line that would have been the envy of many a winger. His set piece work was solid, his lineout throwing was accurate – in short a dream debut. He makes the bench again this week and while he might not get the same amount of game time as he did last week, we can’t wait for whatever kind of cameo he ends up getting.
South Africa’s unsung hero
We sincerely hope that after last weekend, Kwagga Smith’s place in the Springbok squad is no longer up for debate. His stats last weekend were impressive, 9 tackles, 2 crucial turnovers and 2 defenders beaten. His work rate is always impressive, he seems to be everywhere and is, just like Scotland’s Hamish Watson, a downright menace in the back row for South Africa. Physically he’s almost exactly the same stature as Watson which left us puzzled as to why we see the Scot on the bench yet Smith in the Springbok starting lineup. The Springboks as masters of hard hitting physical contact seem quite happy with Smith’s size, yet for this match Scotland have decided that they want to start with the big men in the shape of Jamie Ritchie, Nick Haining and Matt Fagerson. It will be fascinating to see when Watson gets brought into the fray to counter the outright nuisance factor of Smith.
Has he finally matured into a Test 10?
We’ll be the first to admit that we’ve given Springbok fly half Elton Jantjies a lot of stick over the years. We’ve always admired his skills in Super Rugby but somehow such skills always seemed to vanish the minute he pulled on the green jersey. His last couple of outings however, have revised our opinions. He was excellent in closing out the Springboks recent win over New Zealand, and looked composed last weekend when he came off the bench against Wales in appalling conditions. This week is a big Test as Coach Jacques Nienaber has given him the starting berth. As long as Jantjies continues in the vein of his last few games, then we’d argue it could be a master stroke. Regular starter Handre Pollard is perhaps too conservative to be able to deal with Scotland’s maverick fly half Finn Russell, whereas there is a serious streak of flair in Jantjies and he has been known to pull off some rather remarkable and bold moves in the past. Provided that Jantjies understands that endlessly kicking to a very pacy and mobile Scottish back line is going to cause his team all kinds of headaches defensively, it could well be time for Jantjies to put on show some of those pinpoint kicks to put his own backs in space that he is famous for with the Lions in Super Rugby. Just pick your moments carefully Elton – that’s all we and your teammates ask!
Another Scottish newbie seeks to impress on the big stage!
When your Coach says to you that on only your second cap you’re going up against one of the paciest and most inventive wingers in Test Rugby, South Africa’s Makazole Mapimpi, then if that’s not a vote of confidence in your abilities then we don’t know what is! Scottish Winger Rufus McLean was a joy to watch against Tonga, but South Africa will be the sternest possible Test the 21 year old could ask for on only his second outing in the blue jersey. If he can create the kind of magic he put on display against Tonga orchestrated by Chief Wizard Finn Russell, while keeping South Africa’s Makazole Mapimpi in check then Scotland will feel more than a little confident heading into next year’s Six Nations. We just hope that putting the youngster under such pressure so soon doesn’t break his spirit. He seems a fairly confident young man so we think he might just rise to the occasion.
The weather for Saturday’s match looks set to cooperate and unlike South Africa’s rain soaked encounter with Wales, it should be a fine day for some running rugby. The Springboks while still holding true to what they believe works for them, seem to have developed a more rounded and complete game since the Lions series. Their physical prowess is not in doubt, but they now seem much more confident in using it to support their efforts with ball in hand. It’s going to be a big bruising afternoon in Murrayfield, and as talented as Scotland are they may just not have enough to put the brakes on a Springbok juggernaut that is once more developing a rather frightening head of steam. Either way we’re in for a contest of two very different playing styles and this is a game you simply won’t want to miss – plain and simple!
Next up – Ireland vs New Zealand!