In one sense, Scotland’s pool schedule appeared to be set up nicely; or as nicely as it could be given such a beastly draw.
The theory went that they could burst out of the gates and ambush South Africa in Marseille before a two-week break. After that, fixtures against Tonga and Romania represented a steady build-up to Ireland, a second-chance safety net in case of a loss to the Springboks.
Well, defeat by South Africa at the Stade Vélodrome means that Scotland need that safety net. And, given Ireland have won 12 of the last 13 meetings between the sides, Gregor Townsend’s men may seem to be on a wing and a prayer as they rejoin the action this weekend in Nice. Certainly, there is no margin for error anymore. Even three wins might not be enough to proceed if other results do not fall kindly. For Stuart McInally, drafted in to replace Dave Cherry after the latter tripped down the stairs and suffered a concussion, this is a “last roll of the dice” in more ways than one. The hooker is retiring at the end of the tournament to become a commercial airline pilot.
As fraught as their situation might feel, Scotland should have found heart from various aspects of their 18-3 loss to the Springboks. A 15-point margin of defeat did not reflect the defiance of their forwards in the first half. Scotland eked two scrum penalties out of South Africa. Only once since the last World Cup, when they conceded three against Ireland in Dublin a year ago, have the Springboks shipped more in a single game. South Africa also surrendered two mauls. You must go back to 2018, when England triumphed in Cape Town, for the last time they lost three.
Ultimately, a Springboks power surge at the beginning of the second half proved decisive and Manie Libbok’s insouciant kick-pass to Kurt-Lee Arendse, on the back of a breakdown turnover, allowed South Africa to pull away. And yet, the picture of the match could have been so different.
Scotland aimed to bypass their opponents’ defensive line-out jumpers for most of the afternoon by going to the tail or over the top, with mixed success. They lost four of 17 throws, which stunted promising positions. However, one such move should have yielded a try. On the half-hour mark, George Turner sent the ball beyond the 15-metre line directly to Sione Tuipulotu.
Ben White circled his inside centre and fed Finn Russell, who could release Darcy Graham on a line across from the blindside wing. South Africa’s blitz defence had been compromised and comprehensively beaten, Jesse Kriel and Arendse both shooting up and being picked off. Graham sold a dummy to Damian Willemse but was cut down by a scrambling Libbok with Blair Kinghorn and Duhan van der Merwe unmarked to his left.
Isolated screenshots never give a fair reflection of a high-octane moment, though Scotland were in if Graham had fed Van der Merwe with a cut-out pass here:
At the final whistle, Jamie Ritchie rued missed chances and Huw Jones suggested Scotland could have been more patient. South Africa targeted the outside centre channel with an aggressive defensive press, flooding through to cut off Russell’s options. Townsend stressed that Scotland had defended courageously themselves, yet “didn’t get into the flow of the game”. Nothing frustrates teams more than feeling as though they have not fired a shot.
A win-or-bust scenario calls for tactical conviction. Scotland did not deservedly reach a world ranking of fifth by being timid, although they will want to kick as sensibly as they did against South Africa to control territory. Ireland sent eight tries past Tonga, utilising incisive strike-plays and taking advantage of rapid ruck speed. Six of those tries originated from line-outs, so Scotland have to prioritise cleaner possession there. Richie Gray, the veteran lock, has vowed to fix things.
Capitalising clinically on breaks and half-breaks, usually an area of strength, must be another aim. Scotland will surely watch Ireland’s pivotal meeting with South Africa on Saturday evening prior to taking on Tonga the following afternoon. Another win for the Springboks would put a spring in the step of Townsend’s men. An Ireland victory would likely leave Scotland needing to overhaul a significant points difference in their last pool game on October 7.
Either way, Scotland can only confront a single obstacle at a time. Vaea Fifita, Tonga’s sole try-scorer against Ireland, is one threat to contain. Pita Ahki and Malakai Fekitoa are muscular centres and Charles Piutau accumulated 90 of Tonga’s 256 running metres from full-back.
Tournament scheduling gave Scotland an extended lay-off and slipped them out of sight after the opening weekend. Produce their best, though, and they can serve notice of their intention to fight for a quarter-final spot.