The prospect of playing the Springboks two weeks after their greatest humiliation and one week after handing out a restorative thrashing must be one of the least appetising assignments in sport. The Springboks showed nerves in the first 20 minutes against Samoa and signs of real fragility, both of which were wholly extinguished as the game wore on.
This weekend, hardened by their desperation but stirred by their resurgence, things are beginning to look ominous for the other teams Group B. South Africa simply cannot lose if they are to avoid an apocalyptic reaction at home. Scotland, having built well over the last seven weeks, face a thorough examination.
In truth, this is a Scotland selection that few were expecting. Finn Russell’s ankle injury means an enforced change at fly-half, but Vern Cotter’s overall strategy has now been laid bare.
If Scotland win one of the remaining matches, they qualify for the quarter finals. The harder match, on paper, is against the Springboks. It is very likely to be attritional. Yet, the squad, and the Scottish people, would no doubt like to have a reasonable go at the South Africans.
Therefore, Cotter has picked a side which saves his most prized assets – Mark Bennett, John Hardie – to seal qualification next week. At the same time, he picks a handful of players – Gordon Reid in the front-row, Richie Vernon at 13- who the Springboks will know very little about. The thinking is clear-headed and pragmatic.
It should be noted that this is not comparable to Frank Hadden’s decision to play a genuine second-string- and a 20 year old John Barclay- against the All Blacks and Richie McCaw at Murrayfield in the 2007 tournament. Then there was an express acceptance that victory was out of the question.
While Weir’s selection ahead of Pete Horne is not the most positive, the former knows how to win close games, and appeared to have the bit between his teeth when he played last weekend off the bench. Fraser Brown’s selection removes the awkwardness surrounding Ross Ford’s hooking abilities, and allows for a quick strike, meaning less time to indulge the Springbok’s enduring love of the set-piece. The back-row has two proper ball-carriers, and in Blair Cowan, one of the outstanding sevens in the Aviva Premiership, allowing a fast and loose game. Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Horne are both capable of lifting the pace from the bench.
One to watch: Richie Vernon
In his short spells in the 13 jersey at Glasgow, Richie Vernon has, at times, been unplayable, providing encouragement to the many amateur back-rowers partial to loitering hopefully outside 12. However, Vernon’s best games have come alongside Pete Horne’s passing game. Matt Scott- less of a distributor, more of a line-breaker- struggled to bring him into the match when the two played together in Turin. Neither is Weir a passing fly-half of great note. This, however, represents a huge opportunity for the former No. 8, whose enthusiasm for his new role is readily visible, and he may back himself against Jesse Kriel, feeble recipient of a robust, match-winning Japanese hand-off two weeks ago.
Where Cotter tinkers, Heyneke Meyer has no such freedom. This is his strongest fifteen, rendered more mobile by the loss of Victor Matfield and Jean de Villers to injury.
The back-line, where Meyer’s typically conservative hand has been forced, is particularly formidable. For a supposedly ageing team, there is more than a hint of youth. Willie le Roux is a sublime rugby player at full back and toyed with Scotland at Murrayfield in 2013. At 13, Jesse Kriel’s attacking endeavours were amongst the limited highlights of the Springbok’s Rugby Championship, while Handré Pollard, attacking the defensive line at pace, almost rescued the situation against Japan.
JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana may no longer be in their prime, but their descent has been a gentle one. At scrum-half, Fourie de Preez has looked every bit the player fondly remembered before his move to Japan and rightly starts ahead of Ruan Pienaar, of late so often a stifler of any South African attacking ambition.
There is youth and mobility in the forwards too, where Lood de Jager’s irrepressible work-rate is complemented by Eben Etzebeth- a wind-up merchant of considerable talent. His on-field demeanour has not sat well with the Scots in the past, and at Nelspruit in 2013 he was almost single-handedly responsible for winding up Jim Hamilton, yellow-carded while Etzebeth smirked.
In the back-row, Duane Vermeulen legitimately challenges Kieran Read as the best 8 in the world. The Scots defence of the rolling maul, against which even the USA made easy metres, continues to be a dismal failure and will be targeted accordingly.
One to watch: Damian de Allende
Given de Allende’s form, his non-selection behind Jean de Villers against Japan was laughable. His physicality is effortless, allowing him to stand up in the tackle and offload. For a player who you might expect to lack agility, his side-step is something to behold. All in all, it is difficult to imagine what more you would want from an inside centre, and the nascent Scott-Vernon partnership will be thoroughly tested.
The embarrassment in Brighton has focused the South African mind as never before. They simply have to win, and the individuals at Meyer’s disposal are more than good enough not only to do just that but also to go deep into this tournament. For Scotland, the result of this match may well be less important than the manner of what is likely to be a defeat. Maintaining their own upwards trajectory is the overarching goal before the long foreseen qualification play-off against Samoa. South Africa by 13.
By Charlie King (@CharlescpKing)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images