The increasingly-impressive Springboks face Scotland on Sunday with a very different agenda to their last visit to Murrayfield.
The increasingly-impressive Springboks face Scotland on Sunday with a very different agenda to their last visit to Murrayfield twelve months ago.
On his first day on the job, Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer made it clear that his overriding priority was to win every Test match. There would be no such thing as taking selection risks for the sake of experimentation and potential future gains. No, the best way to build a team was to win. And win a lot.
Meyer started on a bumpy path as his conservative approach wasn't widely welcomed by the South African public, for whom simply winning wasn't enough, but November 2012 proved an important phase in his long-term vision. Results were all that counted and three wins in Europe – including a 21-10 success in the Scottish capital – went a long way to bringing stability to the core of the Bok squad and bought some good will from the ever-demanding fans back home.
A year on from the day when Adriaan Strauss crushed Scottish hopes with his two-try haul, Meyer's team returns brimming with confidence and with an eye on the future.
Only the All Blacks have managed to beat the men in green and gold in the last 14 months and Meyer is now comfortable speaking openly of his legitimate ambitions of World Cup glory two years from now. The coach has said that he expects this tour to give him a clear idea of 25 of the 30 men he will take to the global showpiece.
For a handful of players – such as Pat Lambie, Willie le Roux, Bakkies Botha and Jaque Fourie – Sunday's clash will be an acid test of how they will figure in the coach's plans for England 2015, if at all.
All that said, it would be incorrect to suggest that the Boks have not given their full attention to their hosts this weekend. They will need no reminding of Scotland's ability to upset the applecart. Indeed, when Scott Johnson's team led by 11 points early in the second-half at the Mbombela Stadium in June, the Springbok train looked in grave danger of being derailed.
The breakdown was South Africa's problem that day as Scotland did an excellent job of taking full advantage of referee Romain Poite's interpretations and disrupting the Bok game with every trick in the book.
Meyer will make sure before kick-off that JÃ©rÃ´me GarcÃ¨s is aware of what happened last time, but the Scots are once again specifically targeting the ruck area.
Johnson's decision to leave out both Kelly Brown and Tim Swinson (Man of the Match against Japan a week ago) raised a few eyebrows. The discarding of skipper Brown, who can fill any of the back-row slots, and Swinson – whose abrasive style of play would be ideally suited to such a fixture – was surprising, but typical of the Australian coach's tinkering with combinations and rotation as he too gazes ahead to 2015. Alasdair Strokosch was the Man of the Match in Nelspruit and Johnson will hope for another tireless display of tackling from the flank.
On last week's evidence, though, there are a number of areas in which Scotland must improve prior to facing a side as powerful as the Springboks.
The scrum, for starters, was messy against Japan. Despite enjoying set-piece dominance, Ross Ford's inability or decision not to strike for the ball made life difficult for his pack. The new IRB scrum directive has, by and large, restored that “lost skill” to the game, and Scotland's number-two must accept that simply walking over the ball will not be possible against the South African eight.
Johnson's choice of front-row will be in the spotlight. At loosehead, Al Dickinson is a fine player in open play and a very mobile prop. Some feel his skill set would be more suited to the hooker position. Indeed, Andy Robinson trialled him there in training prior to the 2011 World Cup. Dickinson's scrummaging, however, is decidedly shaky. Against arguably the world's best set-piece eight, he is likely to struggle. He is joined by Ford – physical, but desperately lacking in Test form and confidence – and tighthead Moray Low, who seems to attract penalties like a high-powered magnet.
Defence, too, was a problem. The Scots were caught cold on several occasions by the Japanese speed of play, with Ruaridh Jackson and Tommy Seymour guilty of rushing up out of the defensive line. While the Cherry Blossoms were not always able to capitalise on those Scottish errors, the like's of Le Roux and Bryan Habana will show little profligacy.
The Springboks have won nine of the last ten clashes between these sides. Man-for-man, and on current form, the Boks are a vastly superior side. South Africa also field a more experienced starting XV with 200 more caps than Scotland. The tourists have 667 caps in their starting line-up while Scotland – who have three players in the starting XV with less than ten – field a total of 467 caps.
Anything less than a convincing win will unacceptable to the South African public. A repeat of Scotland's 2010 victory will be seen as an abject failure.
Players to watch:
For Scotland: Whenever Scotland have enjoyed a purple patch or pulled off a big result, a fine scrum-half has formed a crucial piece of the puzzle. Think Dougie Morgan, Roy Laidlaw and Gary Armstrong; or latterly, Mike Blair, Chris Cusiter and Rory Lawson. Greig Laidlaw is the latest to emerge from that “conveyor belt” of number nines, and his nous, intelligence and determination will be key to any sort of success Scotland are likely to enjoy. He's a typically forthright scrum-half, and his leadership as captain should come to the fore on Sunday. If again backed with the goal-kicking duties, Laidlaw's accuracy off the tee must improve from last week. While he didn't miss any sitters against the Japanese, he can ill afford to pass up opportunities for points.
For South Africa: As was the case last year, Pat Lambie finds himself in the starting fly-half role largely by virtue of a grueling season taking its toll on Morne Steyn. The jury is still out on whether Lambie is a Test fly-half and with Johan Goosen soon to be pushing hard to be Steyn's understudy, the Sharks pivot has the ideal chance to quash any doubts about his ability to impose himself at this level, where an inconsistent kicking display such as his performance in the Currie Cup Final will be viewed in a dim light.
Head to head: Surprise, surprise, the weather forecast for Sunday involves chances of rain, making the battles in the trenches and at line-out time even more crucial. Jim Hamilton and Richie Gray form an excellent Scottish second-row against Flip van der Merwe and Bakkies Botha. Van der Merwe is unlikely to match Gray's athleticism but like former Bulls team-mate Botha, he'll make up for it in sheer grunt. It was Hamilton's yellow card for argy-bargy that swung the game in South Africa's favour in June, and he is sure to get plenty of attention from Botha, the quintessential 'enforcer.'