When a narrative gains momentum, it’s kind of hard to stop. Even if it’s inaccurate.
This week’s narrative is that Scotland will attempt to dethrone the world champion Springboks, they of the suffocating, smothering, box-kicking bludgeon, by playing wild and attacking rugby.
Not enough ‘Finnsanity’
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 10, 2021
The absolutely unconfirmed hypothesis that the Lions only lost the test series this summer because they didn’t have enough “Finnsanity” until it was too late, will be proved this weekend.
Russell and his free-running, free-spirited cohorts will save us from the Bad Old Bokke, who as entertainment are barely one step up from drying paint.
The entire evidence that this is possible is 70 minutes of the third Lions test in Cape Town. But actually, it was just 30. And for my money it proved the exact opposite.
Russell, who wasn’t really available for the first two tests anyway with an Achilles problem, replaced Dan Biggar after just ten minutes.
He did transform the Lions attacking game. There was literally more entertainment in that half-hour than in two and a half hours of test rugby prior to that.
But by half-time South Africa adapted, closed Finn and the Lions down, pinched a slightly fortunate try (amazing how often they do that) and won the game, and the series.
The Springboks impose their ugly game on everyone
"We showed in that third (Lions) test that when you play with speed and accuracy, you can put them (the Springboks) under a lot of pressure.” – Finn Russell https://t.co/umgE3vCChn
— Hendrik Cronjé (@hendrikcronje71) November 8, 2021
Yes, the Lions missed chances – they had five potential scoring situations inside 10 metres, and converted just one. Liam Williams missed that overlap when Josh Adams could have cantered to the line.
The Boks’ try was a counterattack from a guddled high kick and also involved two missed open field tackles on Cheslin Kolbe.
But they won. Again. And but for a couple of instances in Australia – really just the second game – South Africa continue to be able to impose their suffocating game on anyone they face.
Even free-running teams like New Zealand, who edged one test against them and lost the other in the Rugby Championship.
They have stayed the No 1 team in the world, despite being without – for various points – Kolbe, Faf de Klerk, Lood de Jager, Pieter-Stef du Toit and others.
The inevitability of the win in Cardiff
Last week in Cardiff they even re-ignited the ageless Fran Steyn as they slowly strangled the Six Nations champions Wales.
The Welsh had Dan Biggar at 10, of course. Dan’s conversion to a running 10 seems to have been limited to Northampton and the Lions game against Japan at Murrayfield.
Wayne Pivac is a coach with an attacking philosophy. The Welsh did play some decent running rugby when they got within a couple of injury-time minutes of a Grand Slam this spring.
But they were utterly throttled last week. As the game progressed, and penalties were exchanged, you just knew the Boks would last the pace and win. They always do at the moment.
Gregor Townsend’s new pragmatism
The narrative also supposes that Gregor Townsend was gagged by Warren Gatland whilst on the coaching team with the Lions. Coaching omerta being what it is, we’ll probably never know if this was the case. But it’s unlikely at best.
Townsend is renowned as an attack-minded coach, and not without reason given his past record.
But he’s got a lot more pragmatic in recent times. He has realised to make real progress that Scotland can’t be all Finn and attacking frills. That’s why the Scots went from having one of the worst defences in the Six Nations to the best the last two years.
It’s why, as Boks’ coach Jacques Nienaber noted this week, Scotland kicked the ball 43 times on their way to winning at Twickenham in February. 43! That’s even a full quota of box kicks for a fortnight for the South Africans.
Scotland didn’t play the Twickenham way for the rest of the championship. They were a much more balanced side, and really with a couple of breaks should have won four games. Maybe even a Slam if we’re being fanciful.
A balanced way to win
We got a name for this, @george_horne10?
Outrageous move 🔥🤩 pic.twitter.com/aShZt7q5Sm
— Scottish Rugby (@Scotlandteam) November 10, 2021
This is not a suggestion that Scotland should or will play the South Africans at their own game. They’re supremely comfortable playing their “do Plan A better” game. They milk a try from power or from the chaos of a loose ball. The Boks nearly always win this way.
Also they are secure enough in set-piece to ensure that the game has to be played their way some of the time.
It’s the ultimate truism of playing South Africa. They’re coming down route one/main street/the front door. You either stop them or you don’t.
Finn-fun’s not going to do it entirely. The Scots have to play balanced rugby again, an astute kicking game, forward and setpiece resilience, converting chances, and some flair if we’re lucky.
It’s part of their evolution from those occasionally inspiring wins mixed with hard luck stories, into a properly elite team.
That’s the stated aim. They probably have to beat South Africa and England in the first game of the Six Nations next spring to attain it (I’d add ending their Irish bogey as well, but let’s not get greedy).
One rule for some…
SA Rugby and its director of rugby Rassie Erasmus' independent misconduct hearings were completed over the weekend but it's unclear when World Rugby will provide a verdict. | @Sport24news https://t.co/sqpZtW4H8P
— News24 (@News24) November 2, 2021
We’re closing in fast on the end of the international season. There’s still no word about sanctions for South African director of rugby Rassie Erasmus.
Erasmus’ now legendary video rant after the first Lions test resulted in a World Rugby disciplinary hearing which was actually only held at the end of last month. There’s still no verdict, and we’ve had a vague indication that the hearing’s in “recess”.
It’s been nearly 150 days. Most basic disciplinary hearings are heard in three. In this case, the video evidence is kind of obvious and unequivocal.
Scottish Rugby, of course, got a fine and censure within a few weeks in refusing to accept that a crucial World Cup game might be cancelled (it eventually wasn’t).
You’d almost think World Rugby has one rule for some, and another for others.