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Finn Russell and Blair Kinghorn in Scotland training
Can the guile of Finn Russell cause muscular South Africa problems?
Venue: Stade Velodrome Date: Sunday, 9 September Kick-off: 16:45 BST
Coverage: Full commentary of every Scotland game across BBC Radio 5 Live, Radio 5 Live Sports Extra and Radio Scotland, plus text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app.

In the days leading up to South Africa’s World Cup quarter-final against Japan four years ago, their then coach, and now director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus summed up the different mindsets of the protagonists – the physically brutal Boks and the dynamic, freewheeling Brave Blossoms.

“They want to take us to the dance floor and we want to take them to the gutters,” Erasmus said. And so into the gutters they went and the Boks monstered their hosts 26-3.

That Erasmus line is still apt now, but for Japan read Scotland and for the Tokyo Stadium in Chofu read the majestic Stade Velodrome in Marseille.

South Africa’s game has evolved ominously since then. They’re a more balanced team than when they won the World Cup in Yokohama, more likely to go wide and destroy opponents with pace and ingenuity as well as power.

They can dance with the best of them now, but they’d still much rather a mighty scrap on their way to the floor.

Scotland know what’s coming – the most ferocious physical confrontation of their rugby lives. The champions go into Sunday on the back of a record beating of the All Blacks and a record beating of Wales.

They’ve been slow starters in World Cups before – opening-game defeats by New Zealand in 2019 and Japan in 2015 and a squeaky one-point win over Wales in 2011 – but this time they looked to have timed their run to perfection.

If they’ve morphed into a more complete rugby team since 2019 then Scotland have changed too, changed utterly, as they prepare to face the terrible beauty.

The memories of the media mixed zone in the minutes after Scotland exited the World Cup in Japan are still vivid.

Stuart Hogg came through and it was obvious he’d been crying. Finn Russell looked hangdog – and that takes some doing.

Gregor Townsend was present in body, but not in mind. Emotionally, he was in a distant and dark land. It was all incredibly uncomfortable.

‘An unpredictable, attacking joy’

And in the years since? Scotland won in Paris for the first time in 22 years, won at Twickenham for the first time in 38 years and then won there again, their first time going back-to-back since 1909. They’ve gone three-in-a-row against England for the first time since 1972.

They won in Wales for the first time in 18 years, landed their biggest victory in the championship (a 50-pointer against Italy), had eight players selected for the Lions tour of South Africa, seven of whom became Test Lions.

They had three in the official 2023 Six Nations team of the championship, the same number as France and three more than England and Wales. Scotland are now world number five.

There was no Sione Tuipulotu on the scene in 2019, no Duhan van der Merwe, no Rory Darge, no Jack Dempsey, no Ben White, no Cameron Redpath, no Pierre Schoeman, no Ollie Smith. All of them are in the 23 for Sunday.

Whether you agree or not with John Jeffrey that this is the greatest team in Scotland history, you can say probably without much, or any argument, that this is Scotland’s most entertaining team. They’re an unpredictable, attacking joy.

South Africa are ranked the second best team in the world right now
World Cup holders South Africa are ranked the second best team in the world

The problem is that the Springboks tend to treat teams with the verve of Scotland like some piece of meat to be cooked on a braai.

The Boks have beaten the Scots seven times in a row, with the winning points margins weighing in at 15, 6, 18, 49, 28, 13 and 11. Scotland have lost 23 of their last 28 games against South Africa.

From Scotland, we’re hearing a mantra of having nothing to lose and everything to gain. On Friday, captain Jamie Ritchie spoke of his team wanting to play the fastest brand of rugby in the world, a moniker they gave themselves four years ago with calamitous results.

This team looks better equipped than their predecessors to play that way, though. They’ve scored blistering tries over the last year, not just against weaker teams but against France, at home and away.

They dominated Les Bleus for 40 and 50 minutes in their trilogy of games in 2023. An 80-minute performance is their holy grail. If they can deliver that, then Sunday will be close.

They’re huge underdogs, but Scotland have a lot going for them. Their back three is lethal. Between them, Blair Kinghorn, Darcy Graham and Van der Merwe have scored 52 Test tries, Graham has 19 in 35 Tests. Van der Merwe has 20 in 31.

With nine tries in 13 internationals, Kyle Steyn couldn’t even make the match-day 23. There’s never been a time when Scotland has had so much firepower.

The Scottish midfield is a settled unit of craft and attrition. You’d take Russell over Manie Libbok any day. In a contest of backlines, Scotland look to have more about them. But then you move to the forwards and the picture changes.

Can Scotland stand up to the ‘Bomb Squad’?

South Africa are slightly heavier in the front row, Scotland are slightly heavier in the second row and the Boks have a decent weight advantage in the back row. They also have the ‘Bomb Squad’.

There is a well-cultivated aura around the Boks and their capacity for physical cruelty. It’s something they play on relentlessly, as a means to intimidate before a ball is kicked.

South Africa didn’t just pick seven forwards on the bench on the night they blasted the All Blacks, they brought them all on at the same time, as if to send a message to the world about their might. And it landed big-time.

Earlier in the week, Tuipulotu said that the one thing he could guarantee Scotland fans was that they wouldn’t lose this game before it had been played. That they wouldn’t get psyched out of it before Sunday.

Forwards coach Steve Tandy delivered the same message on Saturday. “South Africa are coming through the front door, but I have no doubts about these boys,” he said of his own team.

There is a game before the game, though. The last time these sides met – 30-15 to the Boks at Murrayfield in 2021 – Scotland conceded five scrum penalties and 15 in total.

The referee then was Angus Gardner, who’ll be in charge again on Sunday. Gardner refereed Scotland versus Italy this year and, again, gave 15 penalties against the Scots.

The Scotland management will have looked for ‘clarification’ from Gardner about his interpretations. The last thing they need is a referee with preconceived notions that Scotland are penalty-conceding machines.

Ritchie was coy when asked on Friday about potential Bok weaknesses, but they do exist, if you look hard enough. They concede a lot of turnovers – 16, 20, 14 and 21 in four recent games. They miss a lot of tackles – 25, 30, 21 and 39 against Argentina, New Zealand and Australia this year.

The question is – can Scotland take advantage, can their set-piece break even, can their dangerous runners unleash mayhem, can their finishers finish like never before? If they’re taken to the gutters, will they still see the stars?

The preamble is almost over. The talking is all but done. Time to play. Time for the underdog to bark and bite.

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