If looking for a definition of confidence, one could do worse than study the demeanour of the teams before the opening match of this weekend’s autumn series. Scotland, fresh from their win over Australia, entertain South Africa, world champions no less, and both have made bold selection decisions.
Scotland make perhaps the boldest in dropping Hamish Watson, Lion and last week’s player of the match, to the bench. Gregor Townsend suggested it was a selection of the horses-for-courses variety, although Watson is short of game time. All the same, to feel able to leave him out smacks of a confidence, let alone depth of talent, not always apparent in Scottish rugby this century.
As for Sam Johnson and Darcy Graham, credible performers in last weekend’s win, not even a place on the bench is on offer. They step aside for Matt Scott, the veteran centre some Scots would be forgiven for forgetting they had, and Rufus McLean, the latest toy at Scotland’s disposal on the wing.
The latter became Scotland’s first player born in this troubled century to win a cap and scored two tries in the first quarter of an hour of the win against Tonga a fortnight ago. His sidestep for the second was an internet sensation. If it is possible to imagine a player lighter on his feet than Graham, McLean could just be it.
Meanwhile, Scott comes in for Johnson at inside-centre to win his 40th cap, more than four years after his 39th. His muscular playmaking had looked set to become a fixture in Scotland’s midfield, with 33 of those caps won by the age of 25, but they started to peter out in the second half of last decade. Now 31, he has earned a recall, his second full season at Leicester having started so well.
In a fourth change to the team that beat Australia on Sunday, Townsend brings in Stuart McInally at hooker. He replaces George Turner, who was injured early against the Wallabies. McInally’s experience has been preferred to the youthful exuberance of Ewan Ashman. The hooker from Sale replaced Turner for his first cap and oozed confidence, scoring Scotland’s second try flamboyantly in the corner.
McInally’s promotion, along with that of Nick Haining, who replaces Watson, brings the count of Edinburgh forwards to five. Haining is a bigger man than Watson and fast enough to have history playing on the wing.
This might be seen to play to the hoary old theory that to beat South Africa a team needs to muscle up, but Scotland are as well equipped as any team in the north to adopt an approach more like that of New Zealand and Australia, whose victories over South Africa tend to be achieved by running rings round them. Which brings us to the equally interesting choices made by the Springboks.
They make three changes after their narrow win in Cardiff last weekend. Willie le Roux returns at full-back for the injured Damian Willemse, while the revolving-door policy in the Springboks’ engine room sees Lood de Jager step aside for Franco Mostert. The really interesting choice is the selection of Elton Jantjies over Handré Pollard.
Those weary of the relentless thud of recent matches involving South Africa, which seems to be most people outside the Republic, with Sir Clive Woodward saying recently that rugby would be dead in five years’ if the Springbok Way prevailed, will prick up their ears at this announcement. Pollard’s metronomic style is integral to South Africa’s approach, but Jantjies is far more of a livewire.
Given the success South Africa enjoyed bombarding Stuart Hogg and Duhan van der Merwe (now a fully fledged Scot) in the Lions series, it is difficult to imagine their moving too far from such a policy. But, if the Springboks are going to look beyond their biceps, a player such as Jantjies represents the best hope. We should not expect a riot of running rugby at Murrayfield, but maybe the players might find a little more room to breathe than in those Lions Tests.
If South Africa win they could regain top spot from New Zealand in the world rankings. If Scotland win, they could equal their highest ranking of fifth. If they win by more than 15, they could go fourth. Now, that would be better still for those confidence levels.