Two results stood out at the weekend. Scotland’s 53-24 victory over Australia may have been achieved against a side that was reduced to 14 men after 39 minutes, but it was only the second time a tier-one nation from the north had put a half-century of points on one of the old Tri Nations countries.
The following day, Glasgow won 47-6 in the Pro14 at Ospreys, seven tries to nil, despite being without 14 players involved in the victory over Australia. The region that for years was Wales’s flag-carrier may have slumped this season, but they had 10 Wales internationals in their 23, and exactly a year before they had won 22-5 in Glasgow.
As one falls, another rises. Scotland’s improvement under Vern Cotter from a side that was too often clueless in possession to one that finished in the top half of the Six Nations last season was camouflaged by the 61-21 defeat at Twickenham in March, a reverse that cost them places in the Lions squad for the tour to New Zealand.
Gregor Townsend took over from Cotter in the summer when Scotland won in Australia, starting with 11 players who took the field at Twickenham, before losing to Fiji the following week with a team showing 12 changes. If depth appeared an issue then, it is less so now: as well as Glasgow’s victory, which maintained their 100% league record, Scotland were not hampered by the loss of Stuart Hogg to an injury he sustained in the warm-up last Saturday.
Sean Maitland moved from the wing to full-back and Byron McGuigan was promoted from the bench for his second cap and first start. He scored two of their eight tries and, while there have been autumn campaigns this decade that have given Scotland hope going into the Six Nations, usually because of the narrowness of defeats, this time it will be laced with a shot of expectation.
Scotland’s first match is in Cardiff against a Wales side that is looking to play in the same vein as Townsend’s team but without the same aptitude. Wales end the autumn series against South Africa at the Principality Stadium on Saturday in a match outside the official window that has been arranged to meet the financial needs of both unions. It is more opportune for Wales whose need for victory after another autumn in which they have not been good enough against Australia or New Zealand is, just about, the greater.
If a table of matches involving the tier-one nations this year were drawn up, Wales would be near the bottom with only two victories, against Italy and Ireland. New Zealand are top with 10, including the Lions series, followed by England on eight, the only two teams to show consistency. South Africa are on seven, one ahead of Scotland and two ahead of Ireland and Australia. If that indicates a significant improvement from the Springboks’ abject 2016, their number is made up of four victories over a France side that is sliding inexorably towards insignificance, two over the flatlining Argentina and one against the hapless Italy. They have not defeated a side above them in the rankings.
Wales and South Africa finished in the bottom half of their championships, two teams in transformation. Wales have changed their style more than faces while the Springboks retrenched after last year, focusing mainly on players who were based in the country so they could work on conditioning and liaise with their Super Rugby teams, although the defeat in Dublin at the start of the tour prompted a hasty call to the Toulon No8 Duane Vermeulen.
If South Africa lose on Saturday, they could fall to sixth in the world rankings, overtaken by Scotland. Their former coach Jake White, who was in charge when they won the World Cup in 2007, said this week that he did not think there was enough time for the Springboks to turn themselves into contenders for the 2019 tournament in Japan.
“I’m not saying it’s impossible for South Africa to be a force in Japan, but I’d say that line of thinking is more for the dreamer than for the guy who understands the quality of the competition you’re up against at a World Cup,” said White, who believes that if the current drift continues, his country will lose its relevance.
A perennial issue for countries like Wales and South Africa is devising a policy to minimise the loss of players to other countries. The Welsh Rugby Union from next season will bar from national selection any player who joins or re-signs for a club in another union unless they have won 60 caps, while the Springboks have a 30-cap threshold for exiles.
Finance is an issue for both unions, which is why the autumn window is being extended, but Scotland is hardly flush. It has joined up its professional game after spending years fumbling for a formula, aided by progressive coaching.
Wales is trying to build from the bottom upwards after, in terms of the grassroots, a wasted decade under the old WRU regime when all that mattered was the top. It had the effect of coating a stale cake with icing sugar and, abetted by a compliant media which would not ask awkward questions and a smart choice of national head coach in Warren Gatland, the governing body got away with it.
But now the international game has developed to the point where teams need players to be able to react quickly and not only faithfully execute a gameplan, Wales’s foundation is an issue. Gatland recognised this last year when he established closer relations with the country’s four regions: New Zealand has long appreciated the value of joining up the various levels of the domestic game with everything pointing upwards and it was something not lost on South Africa after last year’s struggle.
Saturday’s international does not promise to be one to remember, but for both Wales and South Africa it is not about where they are now but where they are going.
• This is an extract taken from the Breakdown, the Guardian’s weekly rugby union email. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.
• This article was corrected on 1 December 2017 to reflect the fact that Wales beat Ireland rather than France this year and that England have eight rather than nine wins against tier-one nations