South African stand-off Handre Pollard’s 18 points and the physical power of the Springbok pack were enough to hand Scotland their first defeat at Murrayfield in 2018 but there was definitely a feeling of missed opportunity for the home side.
Pollard scored his side’s second try, had a huge role in the first, added two conversions and three penalties as well and was a major part of a punishing defence that meant Scotland were never quite comfortable on their own ball.
The Scots scored two quick-witted tries in the first half through Peter Horne and Hamish Watson in addition to 10 points from Greig Laidlaw’s boot, but they turned down an easy penalty when in ascendancy that would have tied the score on the hour mark and didn’t score again after that.
The Scottish management will be unhappy with the ease in which the South Africans scored both their first half tries, but it was their physical power in defence and especially at the breakdown that was the winning of the game.
When Stuart Hogg was led off with a knock just after the hour, Scotland’s attacking threat diminished considerably, with Finn Russell not enjoying the best of days under pressure from the Springboks.
However the Scots had enough possession to have won the game and had a spell midway through the second half that they didn’t exploit with scoring opportunities, so will feel this was a win that maybe got away.
Scottish trickery seemed to be the way through South Africa’s punishing defence in the first half, but they provided a couple of gifts to let the Springboks get a narrow half-time advantage.
Scotland had repelled South Africa’s first possession impressively, but the second found Pollard on halfway picking an inside line past a flailing Ryan Wilson, scrum-half Embrose Papier carried on with RG Snyman was in support, and when the visitors swiftly recycled Jesse Kriel got so low there was no chance of stopping him at close range, Pollard converting with less than six minutes played.
That was a sobering moment for the Scots and they were fortunate to survive when the last in a series of ill-advised kicks by Russell allowed Willie le Roux and Sbu Nkosi to counter, the Scots scrambling under their own posts and grateful that Steven Kitshoff went in over-enthusiastically and from the side for a cheap penalty.
Scotland didn’t seem to be making much impact in attack until two bits of genius from Huw Jones in a three-man break got them going forward in devastating fashion.
Horne led out the attack and Jones’ flick out the back to Sean Maitland got the wing away. The centre stayed alive to be in support of his wing and he flicked another peach of a pass out the back to Horne, who finished having started it all.
However the Scots tried to be far too clever with the restart, Russell caught with indecision, Jones was turned over and Pollard had a space to run against forwards beating Nel and Wilson with ease to go in for a gift score.
The stand-off added a long penalty after a scrum infringement, only for Laidlaw to reply after a dreadful box kick by Papier caught his chasers offside.
It needed some electrifying pace from Hogg to get Scotland going again, the full-back’s pace down the line from loose ball causing panic in the Springbok defence and forced le Roux to concede a five-metre lineout.
The Scots reached for an old favourite trick play close to the line, a short throw to Hamish Watson not picked up by the South Africans and the flanker had an easy dive over, Laidlaw converting to tie the scores.
Another penalty at the scrum, against WP Nel, allowed Pollard to edge South Africa back in front at the end of a breathless first 40 minutes.
The second half couldn’t hiope to live up to the ace of the first, but it was to the visitors’ advantage as their physical power was brought to bear.
Scotland’s big chance came when le Roux was adjudged to have intentionally knocked on going for a looped Horne pass and was yellow-carded, a marginal decision given after a consultation to the TMO, and Laidlaw made the penalty to tie the scores at 20.
But Scotland botched the re-start reception, Nkosi pinched the loose ball, and a Pollard penalty restored South Africa’s lead when the Scots failed to roll away from the tackle.
The Springbok stand-off hit the post with another long attempt and Jones led Scotland’s counterattack, and right on the hour South Africa hauled down a maul to give an easy kickable penalty.
However Scotland opted to go to the corner and the lineout drive, and were turned over at close contact.
Russell was barely wide with a long drop goal but the Scots failed to make the extra man count and then lost Hogg to a knock after he threatened down the line.
Pollard missed another penalty but the Scots were under increasing pressure on their own ball at the breakdown and another steal and penalty award allowed replacement Elton Jantjies to stretch their lead to 26-20.
Scotland had one more chance from a lineout drive in the enemy 22 but South Africa had their measure again in the close physical exchanges and were able to close the game out.
Scotland: S Hogg; T Seymour, H Jones, P Horne, S Maitland; F Russell, G Laidlaw (capt); G Reid, S McInally, WP Nel; B Toolis, J Gray; S Skinner, H Watson, R Wilson.
Replacements: F Brown for McInally 56, A Dell for Reid 45, S Berghan for Nel 56, J Strauss for Wilson 56, J Ritchie for Skinner 73, A Price for Laidlaw 63, A Hastings for Horne 68, C Harris for Hogg 63.
South Africa: W le Roux; S Nkosi, J Kriel, D de Allende, A Dyantyi; H Pollard, E Papier; S Kitshoff, M Marx, F Malherbe; R Snyman, F Mostert; S Kolisi (capt), P-S du Toit, D Vermuelen.
Replacements: B Mbonambi for Marx 66, T du Toit for Kitshoff 58, V Koch for Malherbe 58, L de Jager for Snyman 60, F Louw for Kolisi 66, I van Zyl for Papier 78, E Jantjies for de Allende 56, C Kolbe for Nkosi 63.
Ref: R Poite (FFR)