A Murrayfield fortress awaits Rassie Erasmus on Saturday as South Africa’s coach returns to the ground where he helped inflict Scotland’s greatest home loss in his playing days.
The former Springbok flanker plundered the second of 10 South African tries in a 68-10 victory in 1997 that remains Scotland’s all-time record margin of defeat – and in which the Scots’ present coach, Gregor Townsend, played at fly-half for the home side.
Twenty-one years on, Erasmus faces the very different challenge of attempting to become only the second visiting international coach in two years to guide a team to victory on Scottish soil, after Steve Hansen, who achieved the feat in a narrow win for world champions New Zealand 12 months ago.
That 22-17 defeat is Scotland’s only loss in their last 11 fixtures on home turf (10 of which have been played at Murrayfield and one at Rugby Park, Kilmarnock) and they have recorded notable successes against leading nations such as England, Ireland, Australia, Wales and France.
Townsend’s side bounced back from a 21-10 defeat in their November opener against Wales in Cardiff with an impressive 54-17 eight-try victory over Fiji last Saturday, and Erasmus is understandably wary ahead of South Africa’s penultimate Test of 2018 – despite his own team’s dramatic 29-26 win against France in Paris last weekend.
“It will be a very big test for us,” said Erasmus. “Scotland like to attack and are not afraid to attack from anywhere. That is the way Gregor coaches. I know about which areas we need to focus on.”
Erasmus has made just two enforced personnel changes to the side that snatched victory in Paris with replacement hooker Bongi Mbonambi’s 85th-minute try.
Embrose Papier makes his first start at scrum-half, in place of the unavailable Faf de Klerk, while RG Snyman comes into the second row to accommodate Pieter-Steph du Toit’s switch to a reshuffled back row shorn of injured No 8 Warren Whiteley.
Townsend has restored Huw Jones, a former player with South Africa’s Stormers side, to outside centre and beefed up his pack in anticipation of what he foresees as “the biggest physical challenge in world rugby”.
“You know what’s coming from South Africa,” said the Scotland coach, who spent the 2004 Super Rugby season playing for the Sharks in Durban.
“They’ll put huge pressure on your scrum, have an excellent lineout defence and a huge lineout drive. They have the biggest men in world rugby.”
Townsend added: “They came close to doing the double over New Zealand last month. We have to rise to the challenge of playing one of the best teams in the world but I believe this squad can do that.”
While Townsend’s inspired side came close to claiming a first Scottish win against New Zealand a year ago, when Beauden Barrett denied Stuart Hogg a late try that would have tied the scores, Erasmus’ Boks toppled the World Cup holders 36-34 in Wellington on September 15 and blew a 30-13 lead before suffering an agonising 32-30 loss to the All Blacks in Pretoria two weeks later.
Scotland have not beaten South Africa since 2010, when Dan Parks kicked all of the points in a 21-17 win at Murrayfield. The teams last met in a World Cup pool match in Newcastle in 2015, the Boks outmuscling the Scots 36-14.
Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Huw Jones, 12 Pete Horne, 11 Sean Maitland, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw (c), 1 Gordon Reid, 2 Stuart McInally, 3 Willem Nel, 4 Ben Toolis, 5 Jonny Gray, 6 Sam Skinner, 7 Hamish Watson, 8 Ryan Wilson.
Replacements: 16 Fraser Brown, 17 Allan Dell, 18 Simon Berghan, 19 Josh Strauss, 20 Jamie Ritchie, 21 Ali Price, 22 Adam Hastings, 23 Chris Harris.
South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Sbu Nkosi, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Embrose Papier, 1 Steven Kitshoff, 2 Malcolm Marx, 3 Frans Malherbe, 4 RG Snyman, 5 Franco Mostert, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 8 Duane Vermeulen.
Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Thomas du Toit, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Lood de Jager, 20 Francois Louw, 21 Ivan van Zyl, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Cheslin Kolbe.