SCOTLAND Under-20s finally got the result that they had hinted at being capable of during their three previous outings in this Six Nations championship, when they marched to a 27-20 victory over Wales at Meggetland last Friday night, thanks to a performance which combined attacking intent with defensive cohesion, blanketed by levels of composure and control that their senior counterparts could only dream of emulating the next day.
If there was one negative, it is that the young Scots ran out of steam during the final five minutes to allow Wales in for two late tries, which added a semblance or respectability to the final score-line which the visitors scarcely deserved, but in the grand scheme of what had unfolded this is merely a minor quibble.
The result was an excellent demonstration of the developmental value of the Six Nations for Scotland’s top age-grade side. Recent tournaments have followed a similar pattern. The young Scots lost heavily to Wales away and France at home last year before battling to a sensational victory over England in round three, and the year before that they had to wait until the final round before picking up their first win against Italy at home.
The big target is the U20 World Championship at the end of the season, where Scotland have gone from whipping boys to by-and-large competitive, where their high-water mark is a fifth-place finish in Georgia back in 2017, achieved with a team containing three players who have gone on to win full Scotland honours and 12 players in total who are now on full-time pro contracts with either Edinburgh, Glasgow or the Scotland 7s squad (in Adam Nicol, Callum Hunter-Hill, Luke Crosbie, Matt Fagerson*, Bruce Flockhart, Charlie Shiel, Josh Henderson, Stafford McDowall, Darcy Graham*, Blair Kinghorn*, Ross McCann and Robbie Nairn).
Last year’s 10th place finish was disappointing, but it included a 45-29 victory over Ireland and Scotland were not blown away in any match. Gone – hopefully forever – are the days when they would get hammered 58-13 by Australia and 73-0 by South Africa in back-to-back matches, as was the case back in 2010, when Stuart McInally, Grant Gilchrist, Dave Denton, Matt Scott and Dougie Fife were in the side.
“I always look at the Under-20s side and say it’s not as much about how they start – although that’s important – but it’s about how we develop and improve them through the process,” says Sean Lineen, the head of international age-grade rugby for the SRU. “They have 10 international games a year and its tough. Nothing prepares you for that.
“It is a young Under-20 side this year. There are a lot of guys there who did really well for the Under-18s last season, but this is another big step up and they’ve had to learn pretty quickly. They are being exposed to training every single day and are at meetings three or four times a day – it’s a tough environment and these boys need to get used to it.
“They have to be conditioned really well and the players have to want to do it. They need to make some big sacrifices in terms of going home and having a chicken salad and pasta as opposed to going for a McDonalds and a few drinks down the pub with your mates. So it is a huge commitment but we have great conditioners and coaches in place, and we’ve also made a big commitment in appointing a quality coach in Carl Hogg to head up the Under-20s full time.
“The academies are now a lot more in-line with the pro-teams,” he added. “So, they are training more with Richard Cockerill and Dave Rennie [at Edinburgh and Glasgow], which has been great. It exposes them to a completely new level of rugby, training behaviours, how to eat and recover properly, and so on – that’s invaluable in a small country like ours.
“The Under-20s and Under-19s have also trained a lot with the national team and coaches at Oriam which makes a massive difference to those young players. Just being able to train and run against that national team is brilliant.”
Work still to do
Progress has clearly been made but, given that Scotland have still not managed to finish in the top half of the Six Nations in the 11-years the competition has been running, there is still most certainly room for more improvement, particularly in terms of the base level that players are coming into the programme at.
“It’s really down to competition and the level of competition,” said Lineen. “We’ve made huge progress with the Schools’ Conferences. There is a league of sorts now where our young players are tested, and the results actually matter. And we have more cross-border games through the academies, which is really important. They are playing against players they don’t know about. And certainly, the programmes at Under-16 and Under-18 levels have been expanded, so, for example, the Under-16s are playing against the top Welsh academies which makes a massive difference. We’ve got good coaches who are working incredibly hard.”
Lineen is able to point to the Scotland Under-18 team’s success at last April’s inaugural Six Nations Festival as evidence that Scotland are getting things right at this level, but where is the next port of call for these young players as they move from ‘youth’ into the ‘senior’ game? A few exceptional players (such as Kinghorn and Jamie Ritchie) will come out of school and go straight onto the books at Edinburgh or Glasgow, and (as mentioned above) those who become stage three FOSROC Scottish Rugby Academy members will get exposure to training with the pro teams – but where do they play on a Saturday?
England and France each have their own network of club academies, while Ireland and Wales have been able to bolster the rugby their Under-20 players get in their own domestic leagues with game time in the fledgling Celtic Cup tournament (involving the shadow Irish provincial and Welsh regional sides, played over six weeks at the start of the season with the specific aim of giving emerging professionals a development platform). Scottish Rugby opted not to get involved in this competition during its launch season and have indicated that their priority going forward will be getting their new Super 6 league off the ground.
Super 6 was launched with the stated aim of improving the standard of domestic competition and shortening the gap between it and the elite level of the game, so would appear to the be the natural vehicle for Scotland Under-20s hopefuls to break into the adult game. However, balancing that developmental imperative with retaining integrity as a genuinely competitive league could be problematic when you consider that several members of Hogg’s current squad have struggled to command 1st XV places at Premiership clubs this season. If these guys can’t get into Premiership teams then how are they going to get into Super 6 teams? “Obviously, with what’s coming next season, we’d hope that we’ll have protocols in place where these young guys have to play,” said Lineen, whose portfolio of jobs also now includes heading up ‘on-field development’ of Super 6.
The flip side is that Super 6 can hopefully act as a safety net for the likes of Robbie McCallum, who was lined up to join the academy programme this season only for the offer to be withdrawn just a few days before sitting his A-Level exams. Left at a loose-end, the inside-centre headed off to Spain for a year out and started playing club rugby for local side Complutense Cisneros. He is back in Scotland at the moment as a key man in the Under-20s programme – scoring the team’s second try last Friday night – but it is hardly an ideal situation for either the player or the coaching team.
“Well, I guess he’s not the only one,” conceded Lineen. “We haven’t got the stage yet where we have academy teams. The age-grade sides are our academy teams. When you look at the Ireland team – they had a couple of warm-up matches against the Munster and Leinster academies because they have the depth to do that. We obviously can’t do that, but we’re working incredibly hard to keep improving the players and you can see definite progress there, but it’s an ongoing process.
Finding an edge
“There are huge challenges and we have to keep looking at ways of developing the players, coaches and support staff, because behind every team there is a massive support system of analysts, physios and so on, so we’re working on developing that side of things as well.
“But where do we get an edge over the nations we are up against? As a small country, we can have a real influence on upskilling each and every player and offering individuals their own training. So that has to be a strength for us and, ultimately, we just have to make sure we explore every possible avenue to give the players the best possible chance of getting contracts with the pro teams and becoming international players.”
Of more immediate concern for the Under-20s is Friday night’s final Six Nations match against England in Northampton. It is a big challenge, but not an impossible one, against a team who have lost twice already in this campaign, including to Wales in round one.
Thereafter, focus will turn to the World Championships in Argentina during June, with three tough pool matches against South Africa, Georgia and New Zealand on the agenda. Scotland will hopefully be bolstered by the return from injury of a handful of the more experienced players in the squad – such as flanker Rory Darge, second-row Marshall Sykes, hooker Findlay Scott and prop Sam Grahamslaw, who were all involved in last year’s Championship – plus, perhaps, one or two Under-18s such as Merchiston Castle School scrum-half Jamie Dobie might also come into the mix.