Stuart Hogg equalled Scotland’s all-time try scoring record but it was not enough as South Africa showed their World Cup-winning class to run out convincing winners at Murrayfield.
Gregor Townsend’s men stayed in the fight to lead at half time but a display of class and power from the Springboks after the break saw them pull away to win in the Autumn Nations Series test match.
Hogg’s brace of tries takes him to 24 in total for his country – tied in the all-time charts with Ian Smith and Tony Stanger.
It was an opening quarter hour where Scotland found themselves under intense pressure, with knock-ons and penalties conceded handing the Springboks all the momentum.
As South Africa carried with huge physicality and tried to grind down the hosts with narrow play, Scotland stayed resolute in defence and when a turnover came inside the 22, Duhan van der Merwe escaped on the break.
The towering winger was eventually felled at the half way line but the Boks infringed at the ruck and Russell was able to tick up the first points of the day from the resulting penalty kick.
Jamie Ritchie was in the thick of the action and quickly forced another penalty with a superb jackal. From wide on the left Russell sliced just wide of the posts. There were boos following some unsporting shouts from the crowd during his run-up.
Ritchie fell foul of referee Angus Gardner at his next attempted turnover and Elton Jantjies had a simple job to tie the game at 3-3 from the penalty.
The battle in contact was causing handling mistakes and one such spill led to South Africa grabbing the game’s opening try after 28 minutes.
After going wide, captain Siya Kolisi released Makazole Mapimpi who evaded the attentions of Hogg to run over down the left wing.
Elton Jantjies missed the conversion and the score stood at 8-3 with ten minutes of the half to play.
Scotland managed to pin the visitors in their own half and then used a penalty advantage to move ahead in the contest.
Russell’s cross-field kick was handled by van der Merwe who managed to offload before going into touch. Hogg then broke at speed and fed Skinner inside.
The big lock got the ball back to Chris Harris and when his offload came backwards off Herschel Jantjies, Hogg scooped up the loose ball and cross the line.
Russell had a simple conversion and, following a helter-skelter final three minutes of play Scotland managed to milk another penalty on the 22 metre line. Russell though pulled his effort wide and it remained a two point lead at the half.
That let-off for the Springboks was punished quickly after the turnaround as Damian de Allende powered through the midfield and brilliantly offloaded to Mapimpi to dot down his second try of the afternoon.
Discipline was a recurring issue for Scotland throughout the afternoon and more infringements gave Elton Jantjies the chance to extend the lead to 18-10 from the tee.
Ritchie was caught out on foul play at the ruck once more on 55 minutes and the Boks had now turned a deficit into an 11 point lead with the final quarter looming.
Scotland desperately needed to recapture some momentum and a high tackle from Kolisi handed them it. They kicked to the corner and the maul held up.
From that platform Price sent the ball out to Van der Merwe who held off the tackler to play in Hogg for his record-equalling 24th Scotland try.
Russell’s missed conversion set the scores at 21-15.
A sensational kick chase by Blair Kinghorn had Murrayfield erupting as they sensed the match had swung back to the Thistle but a brilliant lineout steal, followed by an over-throw by replacement hooker Ewan Ashman, released the pressure valve on the world champions.
Scotland were now battling themselves to build on their foothold but the errors kept coming and South Africa seemed to grow in stature with every inaccuracy from their hosts.
Veteran Frans Steyn added six points from back-to-back holding on calls to put the green jerseys out of reach at 27-15 with ten minutes to go.
Scotland were wilting as South Africa somehow seemed to be growing stronger the longer the match went on. The Boks defensive line speed forced Townsend’s men into some desperate backwards steps and brought three more kicked points.
It ended as a tale where Scotland showed flashes of what they could do but no-one in the capacity crowd could argue that the visitors had handed out a lesson in test match play at the elite end of the sport.
Scotland Player Ratings
Stuart Hogg 8 – Brilliant finishes which kept his team in the game until the final moments.
Rufus McLean 6 – Got few chances to show off his devastating footwork.
Chris Harris 8 – Massive work rate, hitting rucks and winning turnovers as well as making big hits. Popped up with a key role in Scotland’s opening try.
Matt Scott 5 -Some loose passes summed up a so-so return to the test arena.
Duhan van der Merwe 7 – Thrilling break released Scotland from an intense period of early pressure.
Finn Russell 7 – Managed the blitz defence well and unlocked them with a crossfield pass which led to Hogg’s first try.
Ali Price 6 – Had to improvise when his rare shots at quick ball came as South Africa smothered the Scots attack.
Pierre Schoeman 7 – Faced huge pressure at the scrum but had a monster game in the loose, repeatedly ripping the ball from his opponents.
Stuart McInally 6 – Favoured some short, percentage plays at the lineout to minimise the Boks disruption.
Zander Fagerson 6 – A tough day at the coalface and tried his best to stabilise the front row battle. Carried hard and tried to make himself a menace at the breakdown.
Sam Skinner 6 – The boiler room battle was intense and Skinner, like much of the Scots pack, could only take so much. Played role in his team’s first try.
Grant Gilchrist 6 – Carried brilliantly and stood firm in the brutal contact area but found his opposite numbers hot to handle in the lineout.
Nick Haining 6 -Put his body on the line repeatedly but struggled to put many dents in the ferocious Boks defensive line.
Jamie Ritchie 6 – His magnificent defensive work was undone by repeated infringements at the ruck, which cost Scotland vital points.
Matt Fagerson 6 – A bruising day at the office up against some of the world’s finest back row players.
Replacements 5 – While the Springboks bench brought them even more menace, the Scots were not able to match the levels of the fearsome world champions.