The final game of the summer international period comes from Port Elizabeth this weekend, where South Africa welcome the much-travelled Scots. Vern Cotter’s brief reign of Scotland thus far has, on paper, been a huge success: three wins from three games. Look a little closer, though, and it’s not quite as clear cut – a comfortable win over the USA masked an average performance, while they’ve needed late interventions to sneak past both Canada and Argentina, the latter of whom were missing several of their biggest names.
Still, Scotland fans used to years of losing close games will not be complaining, and rightly so – this is what they brought Vern Cotter in to do. This weekend’s challenge, however, is comfortably their biggest of the summer, and on the face of it it looks mission impossible. The Springboks come into the game on the back of two wins, and complacency won’t be an issue given the last-gasp nature of last weekend’s victory.
Vern Cotter is chasing a 100% record from his first tour as Scotland boss, so his side certainly won’t be lacking in confidence coming into this one. He has made four changes from the side that grabbed victory from the jaws of defeat in Cordoba, most eye-catchingly bringing in 20-year old number eight Adam Ashe, a man who hasn’t even won a cap for his province Glasgow Warriors yet.
Ashe, as has now been well publicised, was on a rugby scholarship in New Zealand when he got the call from Cotter. He faces one of the world’s most powerful operators in Duane Vermuelen – good luck, Adam. Behind him, Henry Pyrgos comes in to partner his Glasgow colleague Duncan Weir in the half-backs.
Chris Fusaro, an openside who will give Scotland a decent chance at the breakdown, comes into the side to negate the threat of Marcel Coetzee.
Heyneke Meyer had changed his side up, too, with five uncapped players entering the matchday squad. IRB Junior Player of the Year Handré Pollard’s inclusion at fly-half is the headline change, after his superlative performances at the JWC saw his side to within a point of winning the title.
Lood de Jager is promoted to the starting line-up in place of Bakkies Botha, while Marcel Coetzee, who has had an exemplary Super Rugby season for the Sharks, takes François Louw’s place on the openside flank.
JP Pietersen continues his flirtation with the 13 jersey, an experiment that Meyer clearly seems intent on sticking with. He’s made a good fist of it so far, in attack especially, and with a back three of Lwazi Mvovo, Cornal Hendricks and Willie le Roux outside him, the South African backline possesses, for probably the first time in a while, more pace than power.
Head to head: Willie le Roux v Stuart Hogg
If you go back and watch anything good South Africa have done with ball in hand over the past few weeks, you will notice one thing: Willie le Roux has been at the heart of it. He has an appreciation of space that few others can boast, and with his pace and vision he more often than not exploits it. Scotland kickers beware: any wayward kicking will be punished.
His opposite man this weekend is similarly talented, but could do with a big performance. He has impressed in fits and spurts this tour, notably with a superb try against the USA, but has never really lived up to his Six Nations performance from a couple of years ago. With the Springboks’ kicking game always tactically astute, Hogg may find his opportunities limited but rest assured that, if given the opportunity, he can be every bit as devastating on the counter attack as le Roux.
As always with the Springboks, this game will start and end with their pack. If the Scottish forwards can find a way to negate a montrous group of forwards, they have a chance. The issue is that the home side are not just bigger, they are more experienced, and this is encapsulated in the two captains – Victor Matfield has 105 caps and 14 years more experience than opposite number Grant Gilchrist.
The Scots will look to get into Handré Pollard on the occasion of his first cap, but if he takes his international debut in his stride as he has this Super Rugby season and the Junior World Championship, then he will handle it just fine. Really, this has been a bit of an experimental tour for the Scots, as Cotter tries to establish who cuts the mustard and who doesn’t, a little over a year out from a World Cup – the inclusion of Ashe is proof of that. With both sides selecting unfamiliar combinations and new players, expect the opening exchanges to be somewhat error-strewn, but the South Africa line-up looks too good and, crucially, too powerful for a young Scotland team. South Africa by 20.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43