Coming on leaps and bounds . . .
Scotland have found spring in step, but Maitland knows they’ll have to fly out of the blocks against Boks
ASTUTTERING start against the United States or Japan is one thing: in both cases, Scotland had the composure and the ability to recover from a difficult half-time position and win well. They know, however, that they will not be able to extricate themselves so readily if they make a similar beginning against the Springboks on Saturday.
South Africa themselves had their own indifferent beginning - though in their case it was to the tournament, not just to part of a game, as they sensationally lost to Japan on the first weekend of the Rugby World Cup. On Saturday in Birmingham, however, they disposed of Samoa in some style, to go to the top of Pool B before Scotland overtook them a day later by beating the Americans.
Like Scotland, the South Africans have lost a player to injury – their captain, Jean de Villiers, has flown home after breaking his jaw against Samoa. But, notwithstanding that disruption, they now look like they have got into their stride. They are confident that they have put the Japan result behind them, and can go on to qualify for the quarter-finals as group winners.
Certainly, Scotland know that they will have to be at their best from kickoff on Sunday in Newcastle if they are to inflict a second defeat of the competition on the former world champions. “After their opening game they’ve had a wake-up call,” said Sean Maitland, one of the five try-scorers in the 39-16 win over the US.
“A lot of pressure was put on them before their match against Samoa. They pumped Samoa, but we know if we play like we did on Sunday in the first half then they’ll pump us too.
“We need to get out of the blocks a lot quicker if we’re to stand a chance. They will have looked at our two games and said that Scotland are vulnerable in the first half.
“But we know what we need to do. We know that even against Samoa if we start the way we have against Japan and the USA then we’ll get punished.”
Scotland were 13-6 down at half-time against the Americans, and 12-7 up against Japan, but recovered to score five tries in each game and win both well. Maitland said that, although they obviously wanted to be on top of their game from kick-off, the good thing about those two games was the way they recovered after being under pressure.
“It’s always good to come through so well, especially after the way we played in the first 40 minutes. The US game was very much like the Japan game - we let ourselves down, made too many mistakes and allowed them to stay in the game.
“We’ve all been in these situations before. We can handle the basics things when we’re under pressure.”
To say that Scotland handled the pressure, however, is to simplify what happened. The change in attitude helped at the start of the second half, but so did the change in personnel, as Alasdair Dickinson and WP Nel came on at loosehead and tighthead prop respectively to shore up a scrum that had been very shaky.
The improvement in the set piece once those two were reunited with
Edinburgh team-mate Ross Ford in the front row gave the backs the platform from which to attack with far greater confidence.
There is little doubt that the capital trio will start on Sunday, in a game which will see Nel, a South African by birth playing for Scotland, go up against Tendai Mtawarira, a Zimbabwean playing for South Africa.
“We’ve met each other a couple of times, on a couple of occasions, so I know to expect a good battle up front,” Nel said of the man nicknamed Beast.
“It would be nice to play against him. If I get the opportunity, it will be great.”
Nel has brought some of the hardnosed competitiveness of South African rugby to the Scotland squad, and his knowledge of the Springboks’ mentality should be of considerable help in the match at St James’ Park.
“As South Africans, they want collisions,” he said when asked what was different about their mentality. “They love collisions.
“They want front-foot ball, they want to carry it into contact, play off the No.9 – and they just love to dominate. It’s up for us to be ready for what they’re going to bring to us this weekend.
“It starts at a young age in South Africa. It’s brought right through the rugby, to everyone playing the game, that you want to dominate your opposition. They’re just brought up like that.
“I definitely think we can step up and face that. We’ve improved through the pre-season and stepped up for this World Cup. They’ll be a step up on anything we’ve faced in the previous two games.
“We must go back to the training ground now and work on plans to combat them this weekend.”
BEST FOOT FORWARD: Sean Maitland, pictured being tackled during the USA game, believes Scotland will have to be at their absolute best from the off against South Africa to stand any chance of keeping control in Pool B.