Rugby World Cup 2023: Finn Russell & Scotland get lost in South African maze

Finn Russell
Finn Russell found himself suffocated by South Africa's defence

2023 Rugby World Cup

Hosts: France Dates: 8 September to 28 October

Coverage: Full commentary of every game across BBC Radio 5 Live, Radio 5 Live Sports Extra and Radio Scotland, plus text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app.

Finn Russell must have felt like he was playing in a maze in Marseille, a bewildering series of dead ends and exits blocked by the hulking presence of one Springbok bruiser after another.

Scotland rugby fans dreamed of what-might-be here, but this was a dose of reality served cold.

They would have imagined a world where their team, at their brilliant best, could fire some shots that would trouble the Boks, but that old line about peashooters at a gunfight seemed appropriate.

South Africa were clinical and ruthless. They shut down Scotland's attack, they dismantled Scotland's lineout and, bit by bit, they ate into Scotland's scrum.

They left them with nowhere to go, bar back to Nice with a lesson learned about what's what at the truly elite level of this game.

Russell was brave as anything, hurting himself early on but still making defensive plays late in the day. But when Russell's best work comes on the other side of the ball, you know it's not been a good night.

Every time he tried to make something happen, he had Pieter-Steph du Toit stepping up and suffocating him. Every time he saw space, it disappeared in the blink of an eye.

The Springbok blitz defence was an awesome force and Scotland couldn't problem-solve on the hoof and throw something different at them. They were surrounded. Non-stop.

The line speed of the Boks was so rapid that if they started off now on foot they'd probably beat Scotland's flight back to their camp in Nice.

Scotland couldn't get Huw Jones or Sione Tuipolutu into the game, couldn't get it wide to Duhan van der Merwe, and rarely found Darcy Graham. All Russell saw when trying to launch his runners was Du Toit outside him.

It was unrelenting and dispiriting. A recurring nightmare for the Scots stuck in groundhog day.

The Boks got lucky in one sense. In the early minutes, Jesse Kriel went high in a collision with Jack Dempsey and their heads clashed. The fact that the incident wasn't pored over on-field should incense the Scots.

There was no TMO involvement and no sanction. Kriel was lucky to stay on the field. All night long, it looked like a red card with no mitigation.

You'd have to think that Kriel will be cited for sure. He may be banned, but if he is, then Ireland will get the benefit of that, not Scotland.

Scotland could have spent the vast majority of the match playing against 14 Boks. It would have put stress on their bench, because they only had two backs on there.

Would the flow of the game gone any differently had Kriel walked? Perhaps not, but we should have had an opportunity to find out.

Torture in slow motion for Scots

Scotland's plan from the offset would have been to fly out of the traps and send the Boks a message that they were here to play. "The fastest rugby in the world," as Jamie Ritchie said on Friday.

It didn't exactly turn out like that. The Boks put up two early kicks on Blair Kinghorn and, under pressure, he spilled both. There were Scottish kicks charged down and Scottish lineouts snaffled.

The idea was to impose their game on South Africa but they had no ball, no possession, no respite.

Hope started to arrive midway through the half. Damian de Allende was smashed into touch by a posse of blue shirts. A touchline scrap ensued. The Scots showed some fire.

They fell 6-0 down, but six points was a moral victory. Scotland broke out and created an overlap. Had Townsend been able to physically move his players around the pitch to get his best finishers on the end of a lovely move then he couldn't have hoped for better.

Graham was free and had Van der Merwe in space outside him. A certain score. A banker. All Graham had to do was give the pass, but he never gave it.

It was a stunning botch job from a ruthless finisher. A moment that made you rub your eyes in disbelief.

Still, Scotland were showing signs of life. The close-range South Africa maul is part of their DNA, a thing of unstoppable wonder for the most part. Scotland stopped it.

Then they won a scrum penalty off the Bok scrum. Then they won another, just before the break.

When Russell made it 6-3, he annoyed the Springboks. People talk about there being consequences for actions and this was an example.

You stop a Springbok maul, you win penalties off a Springbok scrum, you celebrate those achievements like there's no tomorrow = consequences.

What happened after the break was like a torture in slow motion. Whatever was said in the Bok dressing room, it can't have been pretty. There would have been no rose petals.

They came out, won a scrum penalty of their own and, in that moment, you sensed a shift. The real Boks were about to stand up. Power, power and more power saw Du Toit drive over five minutes after the restart. That was just the beginning.

Scotland were down the Springbok end, Russell on the ball, all dressed up and nowhere to go. From high up in the stand you got a perfect view of the speed and ferocity of the blitz and how it smothered the fly-half.

The Boks are predators in those minutes, waiting for the moment to pounce at the breakdown.

When Siya Kolisi swooped, that was the genesis of the score for Kurt-Lee Arendse that put any notion of an upset to bed. It began with Scotland attacking and finished with a Manie Libbok no-look crosskick to his wing. Lights out.

It was victory by attrition, just like the Scots hoped it wouldn't be, but just as they all probably thought it would be. This is different level stuff. The Boks at the World Cup - it doesn't get any harder and, ultimately, that's the crumb of comfort.

Everything after this will feel more manageable, even Ireland at the end of the pool stage, which is the be-all and end-all now, presuming Scotland put away Tonga and Romania.

A fortnight will pass before we see them again. The mercy is that they've seen the last of the Boks for a while yet.

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