THIS was a perfect occasion for Huw Jones to shine. He was criticised for defensive frailty against Wales and that, he admits, was hard to take.
“I think for any professional player, having a game like that down in Cardiff will really knock your confidence, but there are some older and wiser heads in the changing room who have been there and done that and told me that it’s not the end of the world – the sun will come up tomorrow.
“It’s probably the first time I’ve come in for that much criticism in a Scotland jersey. It’s upsetting but you’ve just got to get over it and get onto the next game. We’re lucky and unlucky at the same time that we are evaluated every week in this profession – you either do well or you don’t, but you are always going to have another chance, either the next week or the week after, to put things right. I’m just glad that I have gone some way to doing that today.”
Of the Scots with a South African connection his was the most recent so it was an opportunity to answer his detractors against a side packed with familiar faces – some former colleagues, several more regular opponents during his Western Province days.
So would the 24-year-old bounce back in his 17th Scotland appearance? Inside 20 minutes he had provided the answer. In an attacking sense at least, his skillset is more rounded than it was when he first came onto the international radar in his debut during the 2016 summer tour. And this is a player who is still evolving.
With the Scots 7-0 down to a try by Jesse Kriel, he made his first contribution of note with a break from deep and a sidestep that was a reminder of the elusive running that has yielded ten tries for his country in 17 previous appearances.
Then with 18 minutes on the clock he delivered two sublime contributions to the move that produced the equalising score. The first was a clever pass round his back to Sean Maitland. Jones then took a return from the winger and produced another deft feed for his fellow centre Pete Horne to race in.
“It’s always nice scoring tries, but something like that today feels amazing as well. I was pretty worried when they went to the TMO but it was given. I think the boys will enjoy watching that one again,” he added.
Then came a reminder that he is not yet the finished article when from the restart he carried the ball into contact and it popped out of the side of the ruck, with the Springboks seizing the opportunity and shipping the ball wide to claim a second try when Handre Pollard crossed the whitewash.
By half time, Hamish Watson had profited from a clever line-out move and Greig Laidlaw’s boot provide the other points as the Scots trailed 20-17.
Not known as a kicker, Jones did have one effort with the boot that gained ground, but it was with ball in hand that he was most at ease, and that pace and arcing running style that makes him tough to collar were evident in another electrifying burst. A penalty attempt by Pollard rattled back off the post, the Scots gathered the ball a couple of metres from their line and Jones took a pass then set off on a run that again showcased his ability to breach defences, making it deep into South African territory before he was eventually brought down.
“I didn’t actually want the ball there because I didn’t want to kick it, but it just seemed to open up,” he admitted. “Their scramble defence was pretty good and got back in time, but it is nice to have a break every now and then.”
And, with the game descending into a grind for the final minutes, there was no opportunity for Jones to exhibit his skills further.
“It’s massively disappointing. We came into the game knowing what they’d bring, and I think we dealt with that really well – their physicality and kicking game – in the first half. We went in at the break with scores pretty close, and I’d say the two tries we let in during the first half were pretty soft. They were mistakes of ours which they finished off well.
“In the second half, the game slowed down a lot – especially in the last 20 – which doesn’t really suit us. We want to speed it up as much as we can – they had us at the breakdown a couple of times.
“It’s a disappointing loss but we know that we left a lot of chances out there and it’s our own fault, really.
“We can talk about the positives and take them into the next game. But we also have to look at what went wrong and how we can fix that.”