Beating the reigning champion Springboks – who are in a rich vein of form – on the opening weekend of a World Cup was always a long shot, and so it proved for Gregor Townsend’s brave Scotland side in Marseilles.

It was a tense, tug-of-war tussle, which won’t be remembered as one of the many classic matches which have lit up the 35-year history of this tournament, but it was a performance which will provide the Scots with belief that they can indeed progress from the toughest World Cup group ever assembled. To do that they must avoid slip-ups against Tonga in Nice on 24th September and Romania in Lille seven days later, then get the better of Ireland – the number one team in the world – in their final pool match in Paris on 7th October.

For Scotland, there will be an understandable sense of disappointment, but also cause for encouragement that they stood their ground against one of the tournament favourites for 80 minutes. They faced up to the Springboks’ awesome pack power and didn’t take a backward step.

Four years ago, they were blown away by Ireland in their opening match of the World Cup and never recovered. They can, at least, feel they have something to build on here.

It is a shame that Townsend’s side didn’t manage to showcase their expansive attacking game which we know can cause any oppoosition problems, but the reality is that a team as streetwise as South Africa were never going to give Finn Russell and his partners in crime across the dark blue backline an easy ride.

Indeed, Russell deserves credit for keeping a lid on his natural instinct to throw caution to the wind when things are not going his way. The stand-off was under pressure all match but kept his cool and his focus, which is why it was still a bonafide contest at the end.

A twitchy start by Scotland featured Blair Kinghorn failing to gather the kick-off, a charged down clearance on Finn Russell, Kinghorn and Richie Gray allowing a South African kick to bounce dangerously and Russell throwing a hospital pass to Jack Dempsey (who did well to ride the tackles).

While a solid first scrum steadied nerves, and overthrown line-out handed the initiative back to South Africa and at the next scrum Scotland went down on Zander Fagerson’s side, which should have allowed Manie Libbok to open the scoring with a 10th minute penalty, but the Springbok stand-off pulled is shot at goal to the left of the posts.

It proved to be a temporary reprieve because South Africa came again, and although Scotland initially did a good job of disrupting the breakdown, Russell was penalties for patting the ball forward and this time Libbok made no mistake from directly in front of the posts.

Scotland were being starved of possession and whatever ball they did get was under a suffocating blanker of South African pressure. They also didn’t help themselves with two overthrown line-out and line-out penalty against Jamie Ritchie for pulling down an opposition jumper during the first 20 minutes.

Tempers flared on 21-minutes but no punches landed, and Australian referee angus Gardner wisely chose to take no further action after having a word with Scots skipper Ritchie and South African centre Damian de Allende.

South Africa were really attacking the breakdown and when Sione Tuipuloti got stuck under a pile of bodies he ended up conceding a holding-on penalty which allowed Libbok to double his team’s lead.

A collision between Russell and Cheslin Kolbe – which elicited a review on the big screen from Gardner but no sanction – left the Scotsman with sore ribs, but he battled on, and a few minutes later he finally managed to prise open a gap in the South African defensive line, which Darcy Graham streaked through. However, after one elegant and successful dummy, the winger held on when van der Merwe and Kinghorn were available outside and the chance was gone.

There was a big – potentially massive – moment just before half-time when Scotland, having survived a series of punishing South African mauls, got a nudge on at a scrum on halfway, and Zander Fagerson made it count with a powerful surge which forced penalty out of Steven Kitshoff, which coolly fired home to make it an improbably three-point game at the turnaround.

Could Scotland build on that moment in the second half? We didn’t have to wait long for the answer to that question.

South Africa gained some revenge almost straight from the restart when Pierre Schoeman was penalised for wheeling a scrum, and although Libbok’s long-range shot at goal fell well short, the tone had been set.

With 46 minutes played, South Africa claimed the first try of the contest back-rower Pieter Steph Du Toit, who powered over after a period of pressure, and the Springboks followed that up with their second try – which decisively took the game away from Scotland – just three minutes later.

Richie Gray was turned over in midfield and Libbok sent over an inch-perfect kick to the unmarked Kurt Lee-Arendse on the right touchline. The winger fathered the ball without breaking stride and cantered home. Faf de Klerk – celebrating his 50th cap – took over kicking duties to add the touchline conversion.

WP Nel’s first involvement after being part of a front-five bench clearance on 55 minutes was to concede a collapsed scrum penalty, which Scotland were fortunate that de Klerk failed to turn into three points.

South Africa had also brought on their ‘bomb squad’ and the fear was that they would blow Scotland away during the final quarter, but full credit to Townsend’s team for digging deep to keep it a contest.

The visiting support were brought briefly to their feet when an excellent 50-22 from Russell led to a quick line-out throw which sent Darcy Graham over in the corner, but that try was never going to stand given that a different ball had been thrown in from in front of the mark.

Arendse and replacement Springbok scrim-half Grant Williams both threatened during the final stages of this match, but Scotland managed to hold out, with a brilliant tackle by Russell halting the second of those attacks.

The final few minutes were pretty loose, with Scotland desperately trying to conjure something out of nothing, and South Africa perhaps having already moved on to their next challenge against Romania in Bordeaux next Sunday.