Finn Russell inspected his damaged ribs, poking at the Scottish sore spots. There were plenty to pick on a night where Gregor Townsend’s team suffered a major Rugby World Cup blow, bodies and egos bruised as South Africa reminded their upstart opponents why they are the heavyweight champions of the world.
It had been billed as a classic clash of styles, Scotland hoping to duck and weave and land a few rapid strikes; the Springboks searching for haymakers. In fact, Scotland’s inaccuracy left them trying to match their opponents blow-for-blow but it was a fight they were never likely to win.
There will be talk of Scottish bravery in defeat but it is a World Cup tale told too many times before. Gregor Townsend’s side had arrived in Marseille talking in optimistic tones, knowing the stiffness of the task in front of them in a horror pool draw, but with understandable confidence they had the game to mix it with the big boys. To muster only a single penalty in their tournament opener came as a major disappointment.
In an encounter where absolute accuracy was surely the demand, Scotland lacked precision. Skipper Jamie Ritchie’s match eve rallying cry was of a desire to play the “fastest rugby in the world” but a bitty game suited the Springboks, short of their best but still too strong, blunting Russell’s blade with a fine defensive performance to get their title defence off to a solid start.
“Full credit to South Africa, they put us under a lot of pressure and we didn’t execute under pressure,” Ritchie said afterwards. “There are things in our control that, hopefully, are easily fixed.
“As a group, we have got three massive games to come for us. We can’t afford to slip up. The pressure is on us now. We have to hit the ground running in two weeks’ time. Ireland was always going to be a really important game for us, but all the games are must win now.”
The talk in the week was that Scotland needed to put a habit of stumbling out of the blocks behind them, but it was another opening to forget. Three aerial contests were lost early on, while the half charging down of Russell’s first clearance augured poorly. Manie Libbok had the chance to open the scoring on 10 minutes but pushed his penalty wide; two minutes later, from a more central striking position, the fly half made no mistake.
On a muggy Marseille afternoon, the game became sloppy as the two sides scrapped for fluency, Darcy Graham and Cheslin Kolbe engaging in a bantamweight brawl on the touchline before Russell’s no-arms tackle on Kurt-Lee Arendse was ruled a penalty only by the television match official. South Africa centre Jesse Kriel had earlier been fortunate that his tete-a-tete with Jack Dempsey in a tackle went unspotted.
Libbok doubled South Africa’s advantage from the tee with Scotland still to find their attacking range. Russell’s desire to play flat saw him repeatedly flattened by Springbok streamrollers, and only once was he able to free a teammate in space, the inside backs combining nicely to send an arcing Graham into clear water before the wing run aground with teammates screaming for a pass.
But slowly, surely, Scotland grew. The loss of tone setter Eben Etzebeth to injury seemed to shake the South African tight five, and the Scottish scrum shook them further. A mighty heave against the head from Pierre Schoeman, Zander Fagerson and the rest of the Scottish eight allowed Russell to knock through three from the tee with the half’s final kick.
That physical supremacy did not last long. South Africa re-emerged recharged and refocussed and immediately set to work, a scrum penalty to earn them territory and then a stabler set piece to set a platform. Pieter-Steph du Toit stomped around the corner with a couple of burly blokes beside him, their combined mass bashing down the door for the encounter’s opening try.
A second followed soon after Du Toit’s blunderbuss blast through Scotland’s midfield ruck won back possession, before a sublime bit of skill from Libbok set Kurt-Lee Arendse free, a pinpoint clip across field collected in stride by the wing who scampered for the corner.
Libbok was growing in influence, providing the decorative touches to accentuate the brutalist beauty of the South African forwards. There is no doubting that the Stormers playmaker is a more ornate architect than Handre Pollard, and while an off night from the tee will concern coach Jacques Nienaber, there was plenty of encouragement ahead of what is to come.
Scotland’s magic man Russell was into rabbit out of hats mode, one delightful 50-22 uncapitalised upon before a disguised chip landed in Kriel’s arms. The fly half had come up sore after that Arendse collision, and seemed short of his usual influence and calm. South Africa’s defensive blitz can leave vulnerabilities in wider channels, but Scotland lacked sharpness on the edges.
The errors continued – Dave Cherry overthrowing deep in opposition territory – as hopes of a comeback faded. The bagpipes blared one last resigned rendition of “Flower of Scotland” as their side launched one last unsuccessful offensive, their fate sealed, fittingly, by another lineout error.