If ever there was a case of statistics meaning diddly-squat, they arrived on Saturday in the aftermath of Ireland's narrow 16-12 defeat by South Africa in Dublin.
The official match breakdown revealed that the hosts enjoyed 60% of possession, 58% of territory and forced their rivals into making 132 tackles, 50 more than the Irish. Yet, at the climax, the prevailing feeling was of another chance missed for Declan Kidney's side, who led 12-3 at the interval, but could not manage to score a single point in the second half.
These autumn contests are confirming a few significant truths about the state of international rugby. Firstly, there are no truly great teams in the Test firmament, apart from New Zealand, while there are probably seven or eight nations who could beat anybody else on any given afternoon: look at France's demolition of Australia and the Argentinians' triumph at the Millennium Stadium. In that light, when the South Africans visit Murrayfield next weekend, it would constitute no huge surprise if the 'Boks slipped to another loss, after a disappointing series of results during the summer and a patchy performance against the Irish. Yet, in the thick of the battle, and despite regular lapses in discipline, which led to their winger JP Pietersen being sin-binned after his compatriots had conceded four penalties in the opening 10 minutes, there was a reminder of the visceral power of the South Africans.
Loading article content
They might have trailed at half-time and been off the pace for much of the opening 40 minutes. Indeed, there were occasions where the number of basic mistakes and sterility which reeked from the tourists forced one to wonder whether they had just bumped into one another at a barbecue the night before. It was evident that they were struggling with injury problems, even before the news emerged that their fearsome prop, Tendai Mtawarira, had to withdraw from the tussle on Saturday morning, following heart palpitations. But, whatever their difficulties, and lack of fluency in open play, South Africa pride themselves on their scrum and, just when they needed it, their forwards produced the sort of collective display which will have had Andy Robinson scribbling furiously in his notebook. It wasn't pretty, but it was dashed effective.
This is probably the key concern for the Scots, in advance of Saturday's match at Murrayfield. Behind the scrum, there is not a huge amount to concern the SRU's finest, with such players as Zane Kirchner, Jaco Taute and Francois Hougaard rarely breaking the shackles imposed by the industrious Irish backs. But, in the tight, with their pack gradually working up a formidable head of steam, and gaining ascendancy, there was ample proof that the maul is in the Springbok DNA. Once, twice, then thrice, they cranked up the momentum, with a massive effort at the beginning of the second period. Their opponents could not cope with the onslaught. In fact, even before their skipper, Jamie Heaslip, had been yellow-carded, the nervous hush among the home fans testified to their realisation of how swiftly a nine-point advantage can be overturned.
If the Scots are to have any chance of rallying from their All Black thumping, they need to do three things better. The first, and most obvious, thing is making their tackles count, and bringing down the South Africans at point of contact. Secondly, they have to contest the breakdown ferociously and do their utmost to get into their rivals' faces and wind them up – this won't be an afternoon for the faint-hearted, and especially not in the knowledge that if Robinson's side don't win, they will finish the year outwith the top eight in the IRB rankings: such was the significance of the Pumas' unexpected, but wholly merited, success in Cardiff.
But thirdly – and this was missing for spells in the New Zealand defeat – the Scots have to shrug off any feeling of inferiority and adopt the approach that they are as good as the South Africans. The latter have been patchy in the last year and, minus some of their more mercurial figures, they are stodgy rather than electrifying. One would hope that a gifted individual such as Stuart Hogg would be granted a licence to use his talent to run at and around the southern hemisphere men because, too often Ireland, without talismanic characters in the mould of Brian O'Driscoll, Rory Best and Paul O'Connell, plumped for the sledgehammer approach and were repelled.
Scotland have to be more inventive, more clinical and eschew orthodoxy to beat South Africa. The Irish were not a million miles away, but they eventually succumbed by playing into South Africa's hands. Robinson has to ensure that does not happen again, but he has enough threats in his squad to be quietly confident of recovering from yesterday's loss.