SCOTLAND head coach Gregor Townsend has a real dilemma as he prepares to name the team to play Japan at Murrayfield on Saturday. Does he experiment further against a tier two side, or does he name a starting 23 which, with perhaps one or two exceptions, will be the same squad that starts the Six Nations against England on February 5?

I hope he goes for the latter and puts out Scotland’s strongest 23 against Japan. For as Saturday’s disappointing defeat to South Africa showed, the Scots are in need of match practice together, and that means going back to the basics, especially up front.   

After a plethora of matches in which Scotland did the right things at scrums and lineouts and ultimately got the wins they deserved, it all came crashing down on Saturday against South Africa and proved yet again the truth of that old adages, games are won and lost up front.

I don’t for a minute think Scotland deserved to win at Murrayfield, and don’t forget the Springboks were missing the likes of scrum-half Faf de Klerk, World Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit, star prop Frans Malherbe and brilliant winger Cheslin Kolbe and yet they still won comfortably with their domination in the tight being the key to the win. 

The absence through injury of Rory Sutherland proved a major handicap, because on Saturday the Scottish pack was taken to scrum school by the Boks.  I am sure the British and Irish Lion would have made a difference, because Pierre Schoeman, Stuart McInally and Zander Fagerson were under the cosh right from the start  and Sutherland is too clever and too experienced to allow that.

Some might argue that referee Angus Gardner was too harsh on the Scots, but he can only penalise what he sees and the total of five scrum  penalties conceded by the Scots over the 80 minutes tells its own story.

The starting Springbok front row of Ox Nché, Bongi Mbonambi and Trevor Nyakan were brutally strong but they were also incredibly clever in the way they bossed Scotland and forced the concession of three penalties. That head coach Jacques Nienaber stuck with the tactics of his predecessor Rassie Erasmus and deployed the so-called Bomb Squad before half-time was a calculated gesture which was basically saying ‘we own your bahookies, Scotland’ and Steven Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx and Vincent Koch won two more scrum penalties.     

Why do I say clever? A proper scrum is a very dynamic thing, especially for the front row. To all those fancy dans in the backs, it just seems to be two sets of big people involved in a shoving contest, but anyone who has ever packed down as a prop or a hooker knows that there is a science to scrummaging and you need to be constantly aware of the subtleties of the contest. Above all, from No 1 to No 3 you have to do your job all the time, from forming the scrum right through to breaking off and going back to loose play.

Scotland did not respond to South Africa’s tactical shoves, not all of them straight by any means, and duly paid the penalty, with penalty being the operative word.

I thought the Scots looked as if they had spent too much time at the scrum machine and not enough time working out the correct response to the South African tactics which were masterful. The Boks did not exert a full eight-man shove all the time, but varied their approach, the front five shifting left and right and looking for Scottish weaknesses, which they found and exploited. Sometimes they shoved down one side and forced the Scottish scrum to twist, at others they absorbed Scottish surges only to come back even stronger at a clearly prearranged signal.

The arrival of the Bomb Squad in the 40th minute was also a telling piece of game play by Nienaber. He told the six front row men beforehand they would all get a half each, and that meant they could both expend a massive amount of energy knowing they would not need to do so for 80 minutes. You might not think that’s a very nice thing to do, but it’s perfectly within the rules as they stand. By contrast, Schoeman, McInally and Fagerson all played more than an hour and looked out on their feet in the third quarter.

There were a few things that Scotland could take out of the match, but overall it was proof that if Scotland are going to reach the semis of the World Cup in 2023, then they have a lot to learn, not least how to manage playing two of the top three sides in the world in successive matches.

Now it’s Japan, and I hope Townsend makes a statement – this is my best 23, with the exception of Rory Sutherland, and we are going back to basics to win.