THE Scotland Under-20s coaching team unveiled earlier today [Thursday] ahead of the age-grade Six Nations Championship, which kicks off with a home clash against Italy at the start of February, are going to be pretty busy during the next few months scouring the UK and beyond in search of a combination of players capable of improving on last year’s record of one win from five outings.
One player they won’t get the opportunity to see in the flesh, but who will – if fit – be a key member of the squad, is Ayr second-row Marshall Sykes.
The 18-year-old picked up a knee cartilage injury against Glasgow Hawks last Saturday and goes under the knife for a clear-up operation this coming Monday, with an initial prognosis of three months on the side-lines. It is not an ideal situation for the youngster, but he can at least take comfort in the knowledge that the potential he has already shown as a fringe player who became a central figure in the age-grade set-up last season, as well as his performances in the Tennent’s Premiership so far this season, have ensured that he won’t be forgotten about.
Sykes, who was born and raised in Suffolk, first came to the attention of Scottish Rugby’s scouting network when he enrolled at St Joseph’s College in Ipswich ahead of starting sixth form during the summer of 2016. His new school coach, Keith Fowles, who happens to also be involved in the exiles programme, asked if he had any Scottish blood, and when it was revealed that his mother’s mother was from Dundee he was quickly added into the system and ended up playing in the 2017 Under-18 Six Nations Festival.
Wearing the thistle
With his birthday falling on 29th December, the athletic 6ft 6ins second-row was three days too old to play Under-18s again last season, so he returned to England and was fairly content continuing his development as part of the Northampton Saints Academy.
“I wasn’t really thinking much beyond that at that stage. I was still at school and training two or sometimes three times a week there, plus doing a couple of sessions with Northampton, so I was quite content,” he reflects. “Then, kind of out of the blue, I was called up by the [Scotland] Under-20s and managed to get a few minutes here and there during the Six Nations. From there, I made it to the World Cup [in France last summer], and I think I just played well in the right games.”
Sykes is being overly modest. He started four of the team’s five matches in France, mostly in the second-row but also at blindside flanker in the final pool outing against England, and clearly made the right sort of impression. He was offered a stage three contract with the FOSROC Scottish Rugby Academy for this season and moved into a flat in Glasgow with two fellow veterans of that Under-20s campaign in Robbie Smith and Stafford McDowall.
The trio must be fairly sick of the sight of each other between living together, training together in the Academy, and travelling down to Millbrae three time a week together to prepare and play for Ayr.
“I’ve really enjoyed it at Ayr,” says Sykes. “The culture of the club has really helped me as well – I’m not the most experienced and the boys have taken me under their wing and really pushed me on. Having Pat MacArthur [the recently retired Glasgow Warriors and Scotland hooker] as my forwards coach has really helped.
“There’s a strong ethos there. Since day one, we’ve all had the same goal, and you can see that everyone is pushing in the same direction to get there. It is the last season of the Premiership and we want to win it.
“Pete Murchie [Ayr’s head coach, and another former Glasgow pro and Scotland cap] always wants the best from us. Even if we have a good performance, he will look for things we can improve – he is making sure that we don’t get complacent. He’s really good at driving the boys on every detail. He’s already got me signed up to work on analysis for the team whilst I’m injured.”
There is a fair bit of integration between the Academy players in Glasgow and the senior Warriors squad, and with the pro team missing four or five second-rows at the moment to either the Scotland set-up or injury, Sykes may have been in with a shout of featuring in the PRO14 at some point during November.
“I am pretty impressed with Marshall. It is an unfortunate time to get injured but as a kid he has a big future,” said Warriors forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys earlier this week.
No use crying over spilled milk
Given how well the last few months have gone, and the exciting opportunities looming over the horizon, this injury set-back must have been a tough pill to swallow – but Sykes is not wasting valuable energy worrying about something he can do nothing about. Instead he is determined to make the most of a frustrating situation.
“Coming up here, it has been a big step up in workload, but I felt like I was dealing pretty well with it until I picked up the injury,” he says. “It’s really nice to be able to do what you’ve wanted to do for years and get paid for it. From here it is about how I make the most of the opportunity and put myself forward to achieve my goals.
“One area I know I need to get better at is my upper-body strength, which is a lot worse than my legs, so this period now is the time to catch that up – and that will really help me when I get back playing.
“It won’t be long after the operation until I am back walking again, and I’ll be able to work on my isolated skills like catch-pass and things like that.
“It’s not like I won’t be able to do anything. I have already spoken to the coaches and the aim is to get me back better than before I was injured. When I came back in on Tuesday after getting injured they had me on a double fitness and gym session straight away, so they’re not messing about.
“I’m not stupidly phased by it. I’ve been injured before and I’ll be injured again – it’s just about how you deal with it, I guess.”
A sensible head on broad, young shoulders, and he can play a bit, too.