Rugby Union: Smith roars warning to five nations

Scotland 10 South Africa 35
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The Independent Online
IF SOMETHING is finally beginning to stir in the dark depths of Scottish rugby, it is very definitely not the paying public. Barely 30,000 people were at Murrayfield on Saturday for the visit of the world champions, possibly because the locals feared the Springboks might register one point for every person in the ground and were attempting to keep the score down. Or, far more worryingly, because they had simply fallen out of love with a game mismanaged into near oblivion. Whatever the underlying factors, the apology for an audience was both an insult to the Springboks and a smack in the teeth for Bryan Redpath's boys in blue, who needed all the help they could get.

Murrayfield has gone from fortress to wendy house in rather less than a decade. Think back to 1990, when the most powerful English side in a generation went Grand Slam hunting along the Corstorphine Road, and you think of great banks of kilted, hip-flasked locals knocking Carling and company out of their swaggering stride with their deafening waves of och- ing and aye-ing and Scotland the Brave-ing. Eight and a half years on, the old atmosphere has evaporated so much the stadium announcer calls for "a big hand" as the team emerges from the tunnel. How sad is that?

Very sad indeed, according to a deflated Gary Teichmann. "Murrayfield is one of the grounds you dream about as a kid," said the Springbok captain after completing 50 per cent of his own Slam campaign with a five-try victory. "It's very disappointing to think Scotland are playing in a half- full arena."

Redpath, his opposite number, decided that a 25-point defeat was not quite the right platform from which to launch a general lambasting of his own rugby community, but he too was patently disappointed. "It's not our choice to play in front of that many empty seats," he agreed. "Perhaps the only to way to bring the crowds back is to start winning matches."

Scotland were never in serious danger of delivering a victory on this occasion, even though their first-half performance contained enough of the claymore spirit to send echoes of 1969 - their last win over the Boks - reverberating around what was effectively an echo chamber. One supreme flash of opportunist inspiration from Joost van der Westhuizen (yes, him again) six minutes after the break rendered null and void any faint prospect of an upset and the tourists might ultimately have scored 50 but for the profligacy of their prime attacking talents.

Yet Jim Telfer, who is entertained by defeat in the same way that Tony Blair is entertained by Ken Livingstone, allowed the odd fleeting suggestion of a smile to lighten his granite features on Saturday night. Telfer is a big bloke's bloke, a connoisseur of the bump and grind, who finds beauty and solace in the methodical strangulation of eight visiting forwards by eight forwards of his own. He is beginning to suspect that Scotland possess, potentially at least, their most competitive tight five since the heyday of Colin Deans and Iain Milne more than a decade ago.

The return to the front row of Tom Smith, a lion among Lions in South Africa 18 months ago but out of action ever since by a groin condition, has given Telfer a focal point, a foundation stone on which to build. His awkward scrummaging style and low-gravity rucking, not so much close to the ground as under it, upset the mountainous Bokke maulers yet again; they are showing signs of developing a complex about him.

Doddie Weir is also made of the right international-grade materials, of course, and assuming the energetic contributions of Scott Murray and Gordon Bulloch were par for the course rather than miraculous one-offs, Telfer was fully justified in feeling good about the future. Especially as he will be able to reintroduce Matthew Proudfoot, a 20-stone Ben Nevis of a tight head, to the fray around Five Nations time. "Aye, I think you can say there is a bit happening in that department," acknowledged the coach. "Unusually enough for us, the tight five is not keeping me awake at night."

Perhaps the most bizarre rugby statistic of the century had the Scots sitting pretty on 80 per cent possession at the interval, although the glut dried up almost completely once the tourists realised there might be a game on and rumbled their way through the second 40. Duncan Hodge, no Gregor Townsend at outside-half but as willing as the day was long, slipped over for a 26th-minute opening try to put his countrymen in front and would have kept them there rather longer but for two fluffed penalty shots.

There is, however, a very definite downside to depriving these Springboks of the ball: it gives their more enthusiastic tackle practitioners - Teichmann, Rassie Erasmus, Andre Snyman and, most dangerously of all, Henry Honiball - the opportunity to indulge their passion. If the rest of Honiball's game stacked up alongside his defensive work, which the Scots were relieved to discover was anything but the case, he would be the nearest thing this game has seen to a one-man team.

Ironically, it was not a rib-rattling Honiball special that turned the match but the desperate fingertip clutch with which Pieter Rossouw brought Alan Tait to earth wide out on the right touchline. Tait laid back the ball in textbook fashion, only to discover that his colleagues were nowhere in view.

Van der Westhuizen was very much in the vicinity, though. The scrum-half covered the 50 or so metres to the line in a blink of the eye and Snyman scored from close range seven minutes later. Late tries for Rossouw and Bobby Skinstad applied some gloss to the score.

Some of Skinstad's last-quarter flourishes were staggering; there was the odd wrong option here and the occasional period of anonymity there, but he may well be the fastest and most graceful runner ever to inhabit a Test back row. His ball skills aren't the worst, either. Book now to watch the shooting star of next year's World Cup.

Scotland: Try: Hodge; Conversion Hodge; Penalty Hodge. South Africa: Tries Terblanche, Van der Westhuizen, Snyman, Rossouw, Skinstad; Conversions Montgomery 2; Penalties Montgomery 2.

SCOTLAND: D Lee (London Scottish); A Tait (Edinburgh Reivers), J Mayer (Edinburgh Reivers), J Leslie (Glasgow Caledonians), C Murray (Edinburgh Reivers); D Hodge (Edinburgh Reivers), B Redpath (Edinburgh Reivers, capt); T Smith (Glasgow Caledonians), G Bulloch (Glasgow Caledonians), P Burnell (London Scottish), S Murray (Bedford), G Weir (Newcastle), P Walton (Newcastle), E Peters (Bath), A Pountney (Northampton). Replacements: G Townsend (Brive) for Lee, 18; M Leslie (Edinburgh Reivers) for Walton, 51; D Hilton (Bath) for Burnell, 55; K Logan (Wasps) for Tait, 68; G Armstrong (Newcastle) for Redpath, 75.

SOUTH AFRICA: P Montgomery (Western Province); S Terblanche (Boland), A Snyman (Blue Bulls), C Stewart (Western Province), P Rossouw (Western Province); H Honiball (Natal), J Van der Westhuizen (Blue Bulls); R Kempson (Natal), J Dalton (Golden Lions), A Garvey (Natal), K Otto (Blue Bulls), M Andrews (Natal), J Erasmus (Free State), G Teichmann (Natal, capt), R Skinstad (Western Province). Replacements: O Le Roux (Natal) for Garvey, 51; A Venter (Free State) for Otto, 55.

Referee: C White (England).

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