South Africa may be marching on to Twickenham and England looking stronger for their second tour victory, but they were seriously stirred if not shaken by a second half comeback from Scotland which threatened to turn the game on its head.
Last week it was South Africa who fought back in the second half to beat Ireland. Yesterday they had to withstand a 30-minute onslaught – the last four of them down to 14 men – from a Scottish side that had looked almost out of hope as well as ideas when they went 18 points down to the second try of the afternoon by the Cheetahs hooker Adriaan Strauss.
Strauss, who turned 27 this weekend, started his celebrations with a conventional hooker's try before half-time, before coming up with something altogether different at the start of the second. Not many hookers can manage a finger-tip interception and a sprint for close on 30 metres, admittedly with the occasional look over the shoulder to check no one was close.
But if the Springboks hoped that was the end of the contest, they badly misjudged the moment. Within two minutes the man who threw the pass, scrum-half Mike Blair was off and replacement Henry Pyrgos brought about a total transformation. First the Glasgow scrum-half turned down a pot at goal, kicking instead for he corner. Captain Kelly Brown leapt higher than anyone else at the back of a line-out which then split into two, allowing Pyrgos room to scoot through. With Greig Laidlaw landing the conversion the lead was down to 11 points and for the first time the Scots had raised a head of steam.
David Denton battered away at midfield, prop Euan Murray came close and lock Jim Hamilton was held up over the line. Scotland even asked for the scrum to be reset rather than take a free-kick and replacement lock Flip van der Merwe was sent to the bin for his side's collective sins rather than just those of his own. But in the end the gap remained and South Africa grew in stature ahead of the flight south, a whole host of players getting a taste of what rugby in the northern hemisphere can be about. For Scotland it is Pittodrie and Tonga next week, certain in the knowledge that they will not improve on their seeding of 10th in the world – after Samoa's win over Wales on Friday – before the World Cup draw next month and therefore can expect the kind of rough ride suffered in New Zealand last time out.
"The last 30 minutes was very pleasing, but the first half was frustrating," said the Scottish coach Andy Robinson. "We cannot afford to give away the penalties we did. It needs 80-minute performances to beat a side like South Africa."
Four times in the first 20 minutes they gave away kickable penalties and after signalling their intentions by kicking the first to the corner, out-half Patrick Lambie took points from the next two.
However, the rehearsed drive from the first line out, which was only stopped by a blast from George Clancy, gave the Springboks hope for better and when the Scots were caught pushing in the line-out Gurthro Steenkamp got the drive going before hooker took over from prop and Strauss almost jogged over the line.
With Scotland penned in their own half – bar a rare excursion from which Laidlaw landed a penalty – the omens looked poor and worse still when Richie Gray, such a force against New Zealand one of the few Scots seemingly destined for the Lions to Australia this summer, went off after banging his head on Willem Alberts.
The Sharks flanker then earned Lambie another three points by barging his way through three Scottish tackles before earning the penalty and a 14-3 lead which lasted to the end of a half dominated by the Springbok big men, especially the 21-year-old lock Eben Etzebeth.
Scotland seemed totally unable to please Clancy, spoiling their best chance of the 40 minutes and a position in front of the Springbok posts by hanging on in the tackle whereas there were hints from the Western Province centre Juan de Jongh, that South Africa had more than mere muscle at their disposal.
Scorers – Scotland: H Pyrgos try; G Laidlaw con, pen. South Africa: A Strauss 2 tries; P Lambie con, 3 pens.
Scotland: S Hogg, S Lamont, N De Luca, M Scott, T Visser, G Laidlaw (R Jackson 68), M Blair (H Pyrgos 47); R Grant, R Ford (G Cross 68), E Murray (D Hall 68), R Gray (A Kellock 22), J Hamilton, K Brown (capt), J Barclay, D Denton.
South Africa: Z Kirchner, JP Pietersen, J de Jongh, J de Villiers, F Hougaard, P Lambie (M Steyn 73), R Pienaar; G Steenkamp (H van der Merwe, 61), A Strauss (S Brits 76), J du Plessis (CJ van der Linde 52), E Etzebeth, J Kruger (F van der Merwe 69), F Louw, W Alberts (M Coetzee 53), D Vermeulen.
Referee: G Clancy (Ireland).