The World Cup in France looms and the Scotland coach put the finishing touches to his own team’s preparations with a rather laboured victory over Georgia. The optimist in him refused to be downbeat about the prospect of taking on the Springboks in Marseille a week on Sunday but he is realistic enough to know that what Jacques Nienaber’s team produced in the 35-7 victory over the All Blacks was a masterclass of forward power supplemented by some devastating backs play, with the young centre Canan Moodie announcing himself on the global stage. This was South African rugby in excelsis; an absolute dismantling of New Zealand in the clash of the three-time world champions at a neutral but noisy Twickenham. Never have the All Blacks lost by such a margin, and they will wake this morning to find that the Springboks have climbed above them into second place in the new world rankings.
“I thought it was the best South Africa have played for a number of years, so they’ll be delighted they’ve got a game out two weeks before the World Cup,” said Townsend. “And it could have been much more. In the first 20 minutes they were fairly dominant and were maybe held up over the line a couple of times, and in the second half with a one-man advantage they probably would have expected another try on the board.
“You could look at it one way and go ‘South Africa are back to their best form, No 2 in the world now, world champions’, but they’re always going to be one of the top teams in the world. But also you can look at it another way and go ‘World rugby is great just now. Teams are beating each other.’ New Zealand beat South Africa by about 15 points six weeks ago. Fiji beat England on Saturday. There are going to be upsets, and that’s what we’re aiming to do - create a couple of upsets in that pool.”
The latest rankings shake-up will see Ireland retain the No 1 spot, meaning Scotland - still at No 5 - will be up against the top two in the world in Pool B. It’s the Boks up first for Townsend’s team who will then have a fortnight’s break before facing Tonga in Nice. Game three is against Romania in Lille on September 30 and the final group match is the showdown with the Irish in Paris on October 6. Townsend has never beaten South Africa or Ireland as Scotland head coach and that will have to change if his team are to have any chance of finishing in the top two and qualifying for the World Cup quarter-finals. He found Friday’s match informative, revealing as it did a more open side to South Africa’s game. He believes this could suit Scotland whose own expansiveness bears Townsend's hallmark.
“We know South Africa are very strong in certain areas,” said the coach. “They’re playing more rugby. That was maybe the question that needed answered - would they go to the World Cup and shut up shop or would they still play this open rugby when they do have the opportunities, which they’ve shown this season and in the November Tests. And they did that on Friday night, so it’s going to be a more open game, which could work one of two ways. One way it works for them and they get their talented backline on the ball more. The second way it means the game is much more open, which plays to a game that we are aiming to create, and a game that we thrive in.”
South Africa weren’t so open as to neglect their traditional strengths and they had an unprecedented 7-1 split of forwards and backs on the bench. As one report put it, the ‘Bomb Squad’ had gone nuclear. In truth, it was partly forced upon them when they lost back-up full-back Willie le Roux in the warm-up but the decision to replace him with grizzled flanker Kwagga Smith certainly raised eyebrows. Townsend expects the Boks bench to revert to 6-2 when they face Scotland but is braced for an onslaught when changes are made early in the second half.
“We know that they have more depth in their forwards than probably any team in the world,” said the coach. “And they get the players on reasonably early. The front row comes on between 40 and 50 minutes, the second rows come on at the same time, and we have to match that. They’re all excellent players. And either some of our starters have to go deep into the game, or our bench have to come on and make a difference - which they have done in the last few weeks.”
The replacements played their part on Saturday as Scotland scored five second-half tries in the 33-6 win over Georgia at Murrayfield. Nagging doubt remains about the team's ability to put together a complete 80-minute performance. Scotland scored 15 tries in their four summer Tests against Italy, France (home and away) and Georgia, with 13 of them coming in the second half. Saturday’s first half was frustrating, and Georgia were able to stymie Scottish attempts to move the ball wide quickly. The home team were more direct after the break and their superior fitness was evident as they punished opponents who had led 6-0 at the turn.
Finn Russell opened them up early in the second half with a perfectly weighted kick wide for Duhan van der Merwe to score, then the back-row boys took over, Rory Darge and Jack Dempsey both crossing. The impressive Dempsey looked to have powered his way over for another only to be held up just short but Kyle Steyn was on hand to finish. Van der Merwe completed the scoring with his second try of the match and his 20th in Scotland colours, moving him to fifth on the all-time list, level with Tommy Seymour and behind Stuart Hogg (27), Ian Smith and Tony Stanger (both 24), and Chris Paterson (22).