Just over ten years ago Scotland lost a hard-fought Test match against South Africa in Durban, where even the most one-eyed of local support were moved to acknowledge that their home heroes had got out of jail.
Move the clock forward to tonight and the first time the Springboks had played a Test match in Nelspruit and there was that horrible feeling in the pit of the stomach of déjà vu.Once again, Scotland had been unable to post their first Test victory on South African soil.
The margin of defeat for Scotland was greater than that to Samoa last week but the level of the Scots’ performance, in terms of intensity and sheer “bodies on the line” in defence, was ratcheted up several notches. And there were two wondrously crafted tries that showed the attack had improved too.
Back in 2003 it was an experienced Scotland team that were part of the “close but no cigar” script. Tonight, there were three new caps and some still cutting their international teeth, plus a nucleus of the hardened and experienced.
All that, though, was coupled with the backdrop of an injury list that read like a more outrageous plot from MASH. Inevitably, with bravery and courage peppering every action, there were more injuries tonight.
Head coach Scott Johnson and captain Greig Laidlaw were right to reflect at the post-match media conference of two overwhelming emotions at this juncture – pride and extreme disappointment - and you can see that conference on our YouTube channel.
Having contributed so much to the contest, it stretched cruelty to new bounds that Scotland were on the wrong end of the scoreboard with South Africa’s third try in the 79th minute creating a flattering picture for the home team.
Johnson was baffled by the yellow card awarded against lock Jim Hamilton in the 51st minute – the decision was made after French referee Romain Poite had consulted at length with the TMO – Gerrie Coetzee (South Africa) – all with the replay of the incident running on the stadium’s big screens, provoking roars of indignation from the home crowd.
Johnson reckoned it was no more than shoving – the sort you might see in the January sales – but the officials and the crowd reckoned otherwise. As the head coach mused, it will be interesting to see how consistently that benchmark is applied by referees for the remainder of the international programme?
The yellow card could not have come at a worse time for the visitors, as just two minutes before they had conceded a penalty try as Monsieur Poite deemed they had interfered illegally with a driving South African maul, Morne Steyn’s conversion hauling the Springboks back into a match that had looked to be going AWOL for them.
Steyn had twice opted for penalties to the touchline in the first half when the goal-kicking option looked the better bet, an impression certainly enhanced by the quality of Scotland’s defence.
Talk about chopping low: Scott Lawson, whose last appearance had been in the loss to Tonga in Aberdeen last November, gave a stirring lead in the early exchanges and Alasdair Strokosch’ s sustained aggression at the breakdown rocked South Africa.
Yet it was the debutants who also made their mark. From a Peter Murchie counter-attack, South Africa were penalised for not rolling away and Laidlaw gave Scotland the lead.
Goals from Steyn in the 13th and 17th minutes put the hosts 6-3 to the good but Scotland roared back. Tommy Seymour, from the first training session on SA soil 13 days ago, has worked hard in training, often doing extra practice, in particular on following up his own kicks and then leaping, salmon-like, to win the ball in the air.
On a school training pitch in Durban is one thing. On your Test match debut in front of a partisan crowd is quite another and yet the aplomb with which Seymour executed the skill in the lead-up to a cracking 20th minute try from Matt Scott - his second for Scotland – was a joy. Laidlaw converted and Scotland led 10-6.
Scotland lost Ruaridh Jackson – who had been playing his best game for his country – with shoulder damage and Ryan Wilson, on his first start, with a similar blow before the half-time interval.
But the second-half began with Scotland clearly taking Scott Johnson’s half-time instruction – don’t think the game is over, you must step up again – very much to heart.
Peter Horne, who had replaced Jackson, appeared to have twisted his knee on the turf, but he stayed on to bear witness to a bullocking charge from new cap number three Tim Swinson that set up a cracking try – his first for Scotland – wide on the left for Alex Dunbar with Murchie linking to Scott who provided the scoring pass. The try was awarded after long scrutiny from Mr Coetzee. Laidlaw took a good deal less time to goal the conversion superbly from the left touchline.
The penalty try, followed by Hamilton’s yellow-card, saw South Africa now in the ascendant and with the Scots down to 14 men, the Springboks pinched a Scottish lineout and worked an overlap on the right for centre JJ Engelbrecht to touchdown. Steyn converted and South Africa were back in front at 20-17.
Scotland rang the changes with Alastair Kellock, Moray Low and Duncan Taylor all introduced and Laidlaw now in the stand-off role with Henry Pyrgos at scrum-half.
Yet, in spite of the never-ending promptings of two of the “seasoned campaigners” – Sean Lamont and Euan Murray – they just couldn’t get the foothold in South African territory to work a bit more magic.
Patrick Lambie – a sub for Steyn – edged South Africa to a six point advantage with his 74th minute penalty and then the harsh denouement for Scotland as Serfontein crossed for Lambie to convert.
By the end of the evening, though there was considerable frustration in the Scotland camp, there was also time to reflect that with nine new caps in the past two games and some formidable talent absent elsewhere, Scott Johnson’s declaration that this tour, in the land of the Kimberley, could unearth diamonds of the future, was ringing true.
South Africa: W Le Roux (Griquas); B Habana (Western Province), JJ Englebrecht (Bulls; J Serfontein, Bulls, 70), J De Villiers (captain; Western Province), B Basson (Bulls); M Steyn (Bulls; P Lambie, sharks, 70), R Pienaar (Ulster; P Van Zyl, Cheetahs, 68); T Mtawarira (Sharks), A Strauss (Cheetahs; B Du Plessis, Sharks, 63), J Du Plessis (Sharks; C Oosthuizen, Cheetahs, 76), E Etzebeth (Western Province; F Van der Merwe, Bulls, 63), J Kruger (Bulls), M Coetzee (Sharks), A Botha (Bulls; S Kolisi, 5min), P Spies (Bulls).
Scotland: Peter Murchie; Tommy Seymour, Alex Dunbar (all Glasgow Warriors), Matt Scott (Edinburgh Rugby), Sean Lamont; Ruaridh Jackson (both Glasgow Warriors), Greig Laidlaw (Edinburgh Rugby) CAPTAIN; Alasdair Dickinson (Edinburgh Rugby), Scott Lawson (Newcastle Falcons), Euan Murray (Worcester Warriors), Tim Swinson (Glasgow Warriors), Jim Hamilton (Gloucester), Alasdair Strokosch (Perpignan), Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors), Johnnie Beattie (Montpellier).
Subs: Peter Horne (Glasgow Warriors) for Jackson (33 mins), David Denton (Edinburgh Rugby) for Wilson (38 mins), Henry Pyrgos (Glasgow Warriors) for Horne (43 mins), Alastair Kellock (Glasgow Warriors) for Hamilton (61 mins) Moray Low (Glasgow Warriors) for Dickinson (63 mins) and Duncan Taylor (Saracens) for Murchie (75 mins). Unused: Fraser Brown and Jon Welsh (both Glasgow Warriors).
Referee: Romain Poite (France).
South Africa: Tries – Penalty, Engelbrecht and Serfontein. Conversions: Steyn (2) and Lambie. Penalties: Steyn (2) and Lambie
Scotland: Tries: Matt Scott and Alex Dunbar. Conversions: Greig Laidlaw (2). Penalty: Laidlaw.