It must be something about Marseille. For the second day running the city hosted a right rough-and-tumble game of rugby. It looked, for long stretches, less like a match than something dark going on down a back alley after hours in the old port, the sort of thing which you might cross the street to avoid. At one point it really did break out into a fight, when Ben White bundled Damian de Allende into touch and everyone came wading in after them. The Scotland captain, Jamie Ritchie, raced across to make his point and suddenly found himself in the unfortunate position of having to square off against Eben Etzebeth.
Ritchie is 6ft 3in and 17st, but Etzebeth still towers overs him. He fixed him by the scruff and shot him the sort of malicious grin he might give a cow he was planning to eat for dinner later that evening. Ritchie, to be fair to him, glared back like he wanted Etzebeth to know he was welcome to try. Brave as it was, the moment rather summed it all up. It felt very much like Scotland got sucked into trying to play South Africa at their own game, which, just look at the size of them, was only ever going to be a mistake.
There were casualties. Etzebeth himself went off soon after, replaced by RG Snyman, who has the general mien of a man who cooks himself two Ali Prices for breakfast most mornings. Jesse Kriel collided head-first with Jack Dempsey and was damn lucky to escape without any penalty at all, Finn Russell was smashed back, repeatedly, and spent stretches of the match flat on his back and gasping for breath.
Everywhere you looked people seemed to be bleeding, or sporting fresh wrap, strapping, and bandages and the doctors were off and on like a couple of cuckoos popping out of a broken clock.
All these stoppages meant the first half stretched on the best part of an hour. It had everything you would want in a game of rugby if you’re a front-rower. There were nine scrums, and Scotland’s pack did brilliantly to win two of them against the head, something no one has done against South Africa so far this year.
The second of them, from five metres inside South Africa’s half, led to Scotland’s solitary penalty goal. Problem was their lineout wasn’t working nearly so well, and it’s been the source for almost three‑quarters of the tries they’ve scored so far this year.
Here they missed two attacking opportunities on South Africa’s 22 because George Turner threw the ball over the back. When they finally did get it right, at the third time of asking, they worked an overlap off the back of it but it sputtered out when Darcy Graham held on to the ball too long. It was just about the only time in the first 60 minutes they found any real room in which to work. The South African defence was so fast, and so fierce, that Russell never had time or space to try any of his midfield wizardry; every time it seemed like he might be about to whip a rabbit out of the hat, someone clobbered him before he could finish the trick. There is more than one side to Russell, though, and he mucked in with the scrapping, he even threw himself into a superb tap tackle to stop Grant Williams scoring a great freewheeling try in the dying minutes.
You could see what Scotland wanted to do. They were trying to play in a hurry, to make it a helter‑skelter free‑for‑all, and Russell kept calling for quicker ball, flapping his arms wide either side in exasperation. But South Africa weren’t about to be rushed. They play a slow and stifling style of rugby, at least until one of their brilliant wings Kurt‑Lee Arendse and Cheslin Kolbe gets on the ball. Then, all of a sudden, the match snaps into fast-forward and everything starts to move like a chain unspooling from a broken winch and the exhausted defenders are left trying to snatch it back before it runs away altogether.
Over 40 minutes the general effect was that Scotland came off like a man trying desperately hard to prop up an elephant’s bottom to stop it from sitting on him. It was a heroic attempt, with a predictable ending.
South Africa duly flattened them in the minutes after half-time, scoring once when Pieter-Steph du Toit bundled his way over after a series of rushes, and then again three minutes later when Manie Libbok picked out Arendse with a brilliant high, hanging cross‑field kick into the space behind Duhan van der Merwe. That settled it at 18-3.
Scotland actually started to show a little more of themselves afterwards, perhaps because South Africa were flagging, or felt they had won the game already. It was too little, though, too late, a last squeak from a side who you guess will need every one of the 14 days they have before their next game to recover from this one.