Gregor Townsend believes Scotland face hardest challenge in two years vs South Africa

SINCE the Rugby World Cup was first contested in 1987, Scotland have only ever beaten the reigning global champions twice: England in 2006 and South Africa four years later, both times at Murrayfield.

Little wonder, then, that Gregor Townsend believes his team face their biggest challenge of the past two years this afternoon – and will need one of their best-ever performances if they are going to win – when the Springboks again visit Edinburgh with the Webb Ellis Cup safely in their possession.

Of course, even allowing for the pandemic, a lot of rugby has been played, and much has changed, since South Africa beat England 32-12 in the 2019 final. And one seriously encouraging factor from a Scottish point of view is the sustained improvement made by Townsend’s squad since their disappointing exit in the group stage in Japan. 

There were some tentative signs in 2020 to suggest that they had put the demoralising effects of that tournament well behind them, but the real improvement has come this year, with away wins over England and France in the Six Nations and a morale-boosting victory over Australia just six days ago. In other words, Scotland have faced – and overcome – some pretty big challenges of late.

However, the Springboks, for all that they are just a place higher in the world rankings, are a significantly more sizeable challenge than the Wallabies were last Sunday, when Scotland beat them 15-13. Currently ranked second in the world, the Boks, unlike the All Blacks, have actually lost to Scotland from time to time. But the relentless physicality they bring to proceedings, and the vast playing resources from which they can select a squad, have invariably been formidable obstacles for the Scots to overcome.

Factor in that six-day turnaround and the challenge looms even larger. Playing twice in the same week is always tough, but it is especially arduous when your opponents are two of the three best teams in the world.

Which explains the changes made by Townsend to his team – not just the number of them but the nature too. Nick Haining brings a weightier presence to the starting back row than Hamish Watson, Matt Scott is as dynamic a ball-carrier as Sam Johnson, and Stuart McInally is back at hooker after missing out last week because of illness. Those three bring a freshness to the team, and also bolster its physical presence.  

The fourth change to the starting line-up, the slightly built Rufus McLean, has not been brought in for his bulk. Nonetheless, the Glasgow winger could well have a more spectacular impact on the contest than the other three newcomers. To an extent, the Springboks will be aware of McLean’s threat thanks to his outings for the Warriors in the URC as well as his two-try debut against Tonga a fortnight ago. But knowing what McLean is going to do – run very fast with the ball in the general direction of the goal line – is not at all the same thing as knowing how to stop him getting there.

As the Australians showed twice in the Rugby Championship in September, you can beat the Springboks by playing at a consistently high tempo provided you are accurate enough. You do not need to take them on at their own game, as the Lions learned earlier in the year.

“It’s good that in international rugby there are still results that aren’t always by the form book,” Townsend said this week when asked about those Wallabies wins. “Australia played really well in those two games against the Boks – we’ve obviously watched them closely. 

“Maybe at the end of a long season performances aren’t at the same level every week. It was a hugely demanding summer for the South African players, having been in a bubble for so long, to go from the Test series with the Lions straight into the Rugby Championship. 

“You won’t get every game at the highest level. But they showed against New Zealand, and again last week [in their win against Wales], that the resilience and fitness is there to go alongside a talented team and a very successful game plan.”

Scotland are a talented team too, and have had some pretty successful game plans at times this year. But they will need to apply every ounce of their talent, and enjoy almost unprecedented success with their game plan, if they are to pull off a shock win today. 

Meanwhile, former Scotland forward Tom Smith will be inducted into Scottish Rugby’s Hall of Fame today in a ceremony at BT Murrayfield.  Now 50, the loosehead prop won 61 caps for his country and also played in six Tests for the British & Irish Lions in 1997 and 2001. 

Smith, who was diagnosed with colorectal cancer two years ago, said:  “I feel surprised, humbled and honoured to be inducted in the Hall of Fame.  Coming to Edinburgh to watch a new generation create their own legacy makes it more special.”

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