IN A close game, there are often several moments which can appear to be turning points, and in Scotland’s 20-26 defeat by South Africa the most prominent in the minds of some spectators came with an hour played. With his team just three points behind, Greig Laidlaw, a man with a near-impeccable record with the boot, opted to send a penalty to touch rather than going for the corner.
Had he been on target, Scotland would have drawn level for the fourth time in the game, at 23-23, and perhaps the momentum of the game would have swung in their favour. Instead, he found touch, the resultant lineout drive came to nothing, and the home team did not have another clear-cut chance to equalise, never mind take the lead for the first time.
But Laidlaw, never slow to criticise himself if he believes an error has been made, insisted afterwards that he backed his own decision:
“In hindsight it’s easy,” he said. “I thought about kicking the points. The two previous mauls probably pushed us into the decision to go for the corner. I’ll always be aggressive in that aspect – I back the team and I back myself.”
As well as coming up short with that line-out drive, Scotland were second best at the breakdown too, yet Gregor Townsend did not have to look too far to find many positive elements of the afternoon. “It is a part of the team’s evolution,” he said. “It would be nice to win every game you play and you retire with an 100 per cent record, but there are going to be games where not everything goes well for you. It’s about how you adapt.
“We adapted very well today. We went behind on the scoreboard but found a way to get in behind and outside that defence which was flying up on the line, big men on our players. We scored a cracking try, got level at 20-20, were forcing penalties and pressure, which was encouraging.”
All the more encouraging, according to Townsend, because of the status of the opponents. South Africa are only fifth in the world rankings just now, one place ahead of Scotland, but the head coach believes they are right up there with the top two, New Zealand and Ireland.
“I know they’re ranked fifth in the world, but the way they’ve been playing they are a top side. They almost beat New Zealand twice in a matter of weeks not so long ago. They picked their strongest team against us and we were toe to toe against them for a long time. We had opportunities to win we will look at and think, right, we can do that better next time.”
Hogg withdrawal precautionary
Townsend’s attentions now turn to Argentina, and it remains to be seen if Stuart Hogg, outstanding at times in this game, plays a third Test on the trot. The full-back went off after taking an ankle knock, and although the coach explained later that the withdrawal was only precautionary and the injury did not seem to be related to the one that kept Hogg out of action until a couple of weeks ago, it would appear wise to err on the safe side.
“He has an ankle injury he feels is not too bad now,” Townsend added. “Given that he had missed a couple of months and was hobbling about he felt he could run it off, but we made the decision to be cautious. He had an outstanding game. His bravery to chase after the ball when he picked up his knock was great to see.”
In a fiercely fought but relatively clean Test match, an apparent head-on-head contact by Siya Kolisi on Peter Horne after half an hour went unnoticed by referee Romain Poite at the time, and after the game Townsend said he had not been aware of the incident. Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus also declined to comment specifically on the incident. “I really haven’t seen it,” he said. “I’m pretty sure the citing commissioner will do his job there.”