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Scotland Autumn Series 2021: Springboks defeat a blip for the Scots, or a sour reality check?

A subdued Scottish team appalud the fans after the loss to South Africa.

Scotland’s drive to being an elite team in world rugby spluttered into a layby against South Africa. Was it a blip, as captain Stuart Hogg suggested, or a reality check?

Really, the 30-15 defeat was both. Scotland have constantly repeated their mantra of the moment, `being the best of ourselves’. They were not that on Saturday, and can argue something closer might have made things different.

But the reality check is that it’s hard to beat teams as well suited to Scotland as South Africa when you don’t pay exceptionally. And it’s an extremely tough ask – outright defying the law of averages – to play exceptionally every time out.

Hogg’s view was the Scots shot themselves in the foot. Maybe so, but at least part of the time the Springboks were wrestling the barrel to point in that direction.

A power deficit is not necessarily fatal for Scotland – England and France pack as big a physical punch as South Africa, and have been dealt with.

But the extent of the pressure exerted on the Scots was greater than against any other team they played in 2021. The penalty count reflected that, and severely restricted their chances of imposing their faster game on South Africa.

Too familiar a scenario

Scotland had little answer tpo the power of man of the match Eben Etzebeth.

Scotland had aspirations of joining the proper elite of world rugby after beating three of them in 2021. But the final examination was the Springboks, and it was the same old failings.

The ten minutes after half-time put Scotland on the back foot, but there was a way back. After a good move – from a lineout, no less – for Stuart Hogg’s second try, the captain’s booming kick forced a penalty deep in the Bok 22 and another chance.

But Scotland were to lose their next three lineouts on their own throw in South African territory. Any hope of a comeback went with them.

It reminded one of the Ireland game in the spring, when the lineout was in shreds and unquestionably cost Scotland that game.

Without a stable set-piece – the same goes for the scrums which were under pressure all day – there’s really no hope of beating a structured team like the Springboks – indeed, like Ireland.

Hey, do you remember who the two other Tier One teams are in Scotland’s World Cup pool?

What can change between now and then? Something has to.

The unforced changes didn’t work

You understand why the coaching team wants to see alternatives in position in big games. Losing two stand-offs last autumn spooked them a little, and depth is certainly important.

But there didn’t seem any great reason for taking any chances against South Africa when a weakened Japan are due at Murrayfield next week.

Matt Scott is really only a borderline rehabilitation option. His defence still isn’t the greatest, although Damien de Allende is going to be a challenge for anyone. But Scotland’s attack got guddled at times with an unfamiliar link in there.

There was no good and obvious reason for sitting down Sam Johnson. Especially for a player who hadn’t played for four years and will be 33 at the next World Cup.

Rufus McLean is a bag of tricks but he was peripheral and was too easily outflanked for both South African tries. Perhaps Darcy Graham might have been no better, but I would have liked to see Kyle Steyn, a stronger defender and as good a kick-chaser.

Hamish Watson couldn’t force his way into the game when he came on, but if anything that suggests he should have started. Nick Haining was maybe an extra lineout option and it went south after he went off, but that was really more down to Lood de Jager’s arrival.

If they’re going to define understrength Tonga as premier test rugby – as they have – then Japan are easily that. The time to experiment was this week.

The world champions quite properly demanded Scotland’s best XV, which this was not.

Scotland will get better, but they’ll have to

Execution has been a little off during this autumn, despite the good results against Tonga and Australia. But it’s been a fractured season because of the aftermath of the Lions Tour.

There’s the chance to fill some boots against Japan next week. By January when the squad reassemble, they’ll be able to call on Rory Sutherland, Scott Cumming and Jonny Gray to beef up the pack.

There’s every reason to hope that at Six Nations time the Scots will have a team capable of contending for the championship – again.

But make no mistake, nobody else is standing still while the Scots edge forward. Eddie Jones has sliced and diced England’s gameplan again after this spring’s disasters. Ireland haven’t take a step back as many expected in 2021. Their win over New Zealand was their seventh in a row.

You might expect a little regression from Wales and France, but not much. Even Italy have clearly stepped up since their Six Nations debacle, although the results have yet to show it.

Those notable wins in London and Paris, and over the Wallabies, are still a good foundation, but it’s only that. Scotland have to visibly move forward to meet their lofty aspirations.