AT the halfway stage of this Tennent’s Premiership season, one of the most encouraging aspects of the 45 games played so far is the impact made by some of the youngest players in the league. A raft of teenagers have stepped up to the plate to demonstrate that if you are good enough then you are old enough.
Carl Hogg, the recently appointed head coach of the Scotland Under-20s set-up, and his fellow selectors, will have plenty of food for thought after watching these up-and-coming players in action.
So, without further ado, here is The Offside Line’s Tennent’s Premiership Teenage Dream Team –
15. Rufus McLean (Watsonians) – dob: 02-03-00
Started his rugby career as a half-back which helped develop his ball-playing ability, and has flourished since moving into the back three, thanks to his lightening pace, great spatial awareness and excellent kicking game. Started in all three games for Scotland during the all-conquering Six Nations Under-18 Festival last March (whilst still a pupil at Merchiston Castle School), he missed the start of this season with a wrist injury but announced his return to action with Watsonians in box-office style with two tries in a man-of-the-match performance against Edinburgh Accies in round eight, and chipped in with another try in his team’s excellent win over Ayr last weekend. A stage three member of the FOSROC Scottish Rugby Academy.
14. George Spencer (Edinburgh Accies) – dob: 28-02-99
An outside centre but his power and explosive pace could be a potent threat on the wing. A physical defender and is working hard to improve his linking game. He has the ability to burst through tackles and if he doesn’t make the gain-line then he is always alive to the prospect of bringing others into the game with an offload. Brought to Scotland by the SRU from South Africa last October and played mainly 2nd XV last season as he adjusted to senior rugby in a completely new environment, but was involved in the Under-19s set-up and has been a shining light for newly promoted Accies during a difficult start to this campaign. Is out with a hamstring injury for the next six to eight weeks, which is a big blow to the club. He is a stage three member of the Academy.
13. Andrew Mitchell (Hawick) – dob: 20-11-00
He is not currently part of the SRU Academy set-up but has been training and playing in bounce matches with Newcastle Falcons. The 17-year-old has been a revelation for Hawick this season, showing the pace, physicality and courage to suggest a big future in the game. This try against league leaders Ayr showing all of those qualities in spades –
12. Grant Hughes (Stirling County) – dob: 22-01-99
Started life as a stand-off but has played inside centre since moving into senior rugby with Stirling County. Missed the first half of last season through injury but came back after Christmas to make a few club appearances and play Scotland Under-19. With a proper, injury-free pre-season under his belt he has started this campaign strongly and has consistently been one of the team’s best performers. He’s not the biggest inside centre but has the pace and compact power to be a strong ball-carrying option, and also offers a ball playing option in the middle of the park. A stage two academy member.
11. Jack Blain (Heriot’s) – dob: 21-02-00
Another veteran of Scotland’s excellent Under-18 Six Nations Under-18 Festival (whilst a pupil at Stewart’s Melville College) at the end of last season, playing in all three matches and scoring three tries. A stage three member of the FOSROC Scottish Rugby Academy, he got game time for Edinburgh in their pre-season match against Bath. The 6ft 3ins winger, who has also played at full-back for Heriot’s this season, offers has size and pace on his side.
10. Ross Thompson (Glasgow Hawks) – dob: 20-04-99
Played for Scotland Under-20s throughout last season’s Six Nations and Junior World Cup campaigns, having made a big impression as an old head on young shoulders playing for Glasgow Hawks during the first half of the 2017-18 Premiership campaign. The former Schools Cup winner with Stewart’s Melville moved west in the summer of 2017 to study law at Glasgow University and became an unpaid stage two member of the Academy but had no real expectations of playing regular 1stXV rugby until Josh Henderson – the previous year’s Under-20s stand-off was farmed out to Stade Nicois – and Henderson grabbed his opportunity with both hands. Missed the start of this season due to injury but has wasted little time playing himself back into form.
9. Roan Frostwick (Currie Chieftains) – dob: 21-10-00
Hasn’t had much game time for the Chieftains this season due to Edinburgh pro Charlie Shiel being released for eight of the nine league games played so far but has impressed head coach Ben Cairns since first arriving at Malleny Park on a dual registration with North Berwick last season rugby nursery during the summer – ‘good tempo, quick to the base, quick way, quality pass’. The stage three member of the FOSROC Scottish Rugby Academy has was involved with Scotland at Under-18 level last season before picking up an injury.
1. Euan McLaren (Ayr) – dob: 21-01-99
Joined Ayr as a stage three Academy player at the start of last season but missed most of the campaign through injury, including last summer’s Junior World Championship having initially been named in the 28-man squad for the tournament. The former Scotland Under-18s captain came through the ranks as a tight-head, but the Scotland Under-20s coaching team may be tempted to accommodate the former Dollar Academy schoolboy at loose-head so that Murphy Walker can anchor the scrum in the number three jersey (although they will also be keen to persuade Leicester Tigers development squad member Sam Grahamslaw, who played in the last Junior World Championship, to throw his lot in with Scotland again this year).
2. Finlay Scott (Jed-Forest/Melrose) – dob: 04-02-99
A Jed player, he has shown up well when getting game time in the Premiership for Melrose against Edinburgh Accies, Ayr, Stirling County, Heriot’s and Boroughmuir on dual registration this season. Did well when he was parachuted into the Scotland Under-20s squad playing five games at the Junior World Championships in France during the summer, despite a season ravaged by injury. Is working hard as a stage three Academy player to add the physical dimension required to really kick-on in the heart of the front-row. An excellent line-out thrower.
3. Murphy Walker (Stirling County) – dob: 25-10-99
Stirling have perhaps the best scrum in the league at the moment and their teenage tight-head has been a key part of that. He is becoming more and more active around the park as he adapts to senior rugby, as evidenced by his 15 tackles and 12 carries against Glasgow Hawks at the weekend. Capped eight times off the bench at Under-20 level in the Six Nations and at the Junior World Championship last summer whilst still a pupil at Strathallan School. He is a stage three member of the Academy.
4. Marshall Sykes (Ayr) – dob: 29-12-99
Has been outstanding for the Millbrae men since landing in Scotland on a stage three Academy contract during the summer, before sustaining a knee injury against Glasgow Hawks two weekends ago which will keep him out for around three months. He went under the knife last Monday – both Ayr and the Scotland Under-20 coaching team will be crossing fingers and toes that he makes a speedy recovery. He brings size, athleticism, toughness and a great engine.
5. Cameron Henderson (Stirling County) – dob: 13-01-00
Started in all three of Scotland’s matches at the Under-18 Six Nations Festival in Wales (whilst a pupil at Strathallan School) back in April. The 6ft 6ins stage three FOSROC Academy member is growing into his giant frame, which has helped him to stitch together a run of games playing his natural, whole-hearted style without falling foul of the injuries which have often robbed him of game time in the past. It was a bad afternoon for County at Mansfield Park two Saturdays ago, but their 18-year-old second-row refused to buckle with 20 tackles and 13 possessions, and he made 14 tackles and had 13 possessions against Glasgow Hawks last weekend.
6. Charlie Jupp (Heriot’s) – dob: 20-03-99
Came off the bench four times at last summer’s Junior World Championship. Played five games (four off the bench) for Scotland Under-20s at the World Championships in France covering the second-row, but has the ball playing ability and athleticism to fit into the back-row, and would offer a useful extra line-out option. For such a tall, rangy player, he packs one hell of a punch in the tackle. Born in Chester, he qualifies for Scotland through his grandfather, and is a stage two Academy member.
7. Rory Darge (Melrose) – dob: 23-02-00
Made nine appearances, including six starts, for Scotland Under-20s last season, and was one of the stand-out performers at the Junior World Championships when still only 17. Started off this season in scintillating form for Melrose before being side-lined to protect a shoulder injury. With an excellent work-ethic on and off the park, he is an all action openside, who will chase the ball from the first minute to the 80th, tackle anything that moves, hit every ruck, fight for as many yards as he can possibly get with the ball in hand and is getting better technically every week. A stage three Academy player.
8. Connor Boyle (Watsonians) – dob: 19-02-00
Yet another member of that Scotland Under-18s squad which did so well at April’s Six Nations Festival. Came through Stewart’s Melville College as an openside but has played regularly at number eight for Watsonians this season and has shone for the Myreside men in every game he has played in, regardless of the number on his back. At 6ft, he is not the biggest number eight on the planet but has the athleticism and dynanimism to carry it off. An intelligent ball-player, he will happily truck the hard yards, but also has the pace and poise to beat a defender in open space then release those around him with a well-timed offload. He tends to picks his moments to make an impact rather than chase the ball, but certainly isn’t afraid of rolling his sleeves up and getting stuck in when that is what is required. A stage three Academy player.
16. Campbell Wilson (Currie Chieftains) – dob: 16-03-99
A hooker who operates like a fourth back-row player – very mobile, good in the loose and over the ball. Has been deployed mainly off the bench by Ben Cairns this season. Played Scotland Under-19s last season.
17. Ruaridh McLeod (Hawick) – dob: 09-04-99
Fronted up on both sides of the scrum for Hawick until he suffered a season-ending ankle injury against Edinburgh Accies in round six, which has ruled him to of contention for Scotland Under-20s this season, but this is really a team celebrating youngster making their mark in the league.
18. Cole Imrie (Edinburgh Accies) – dob: 18-04-99
It has been a tough mission for Accies so far and as a hooker converting to tight-head during the off-season, the former Trinity Academy schoolboy is doing it the hard way – but he has hung in there. Has good hands and is a strong ball carrier.
19. Ross Bundy (Stirling County) – dob: 02-04-99
A local Stirling boy who played Scotland Under-19s last season. A big, athletic back-row who can be pressed into action in the engine-room if required. A good call carrier in open space and useful line-out option.
20. Drew Davison (Hawick) – dob: 31-09-99
Wore the thistle at Under-19 level last year out of Tynedale. Joined Hawick during the summer to improve his under-20s prospects and has been a stand-out player due to his dogged work-rate as an open-side terrier. Qualifies for Scotland through his grandmother from Dumfries.
21. Robbie Davis (Edinburgh Accies) – dob: 22-10-99
Very unlucky not to be in the starting team. A livewire who has made the Accies number nine jersey his own. Another Scottish-qualified player brought over from South Africa by the SRU as a stage three Academy prospect. He comes into his own when the game breaks up, is developing a strong tactical game and punches well above his weight in defence.
22. Ollie Smith (Ayr) – dob: 07-08-00
Has had limited game time for Ayr this season, largely due to the ferocious competition for places in the league leaders’ three-quarters line – but has looked sharp when he has played, either on the wing or at outside centre. Came through the ranks at Millbrae before finishing his schooling at Strahallan. A stage three member of the Academy.
23. Rory Arthur (Boroughmuir) – dob: 19.07.99
Arrived in Edinburgh during the summer from Dubai to go to university. An outside centre but has been used as a full-back for Boroughmuir to get best 15 players on the park and has adjusted to the new environment and the new position well. Has pace, size, a good step and a solid defensive game as an old-fashioned leg tackler.
There are plenty of good performers during this first half of this Premiership season who are unlucky to miss out, most notably Andrew McLean of Stirling County, Rory McMichael (who played for the age-grade side last season) of Heriot’s, Murray Godsman and Cammy Symes of Glasgow Hawks, Andrew Jardine of Melrose, Paul Cunningham of Watsonians, and Adam Hall and James McCaig of Currie Chieftains, behind the scrum.
In the pack, Callum Renwick has looked the part playing regularly for Hawick this season since stepping into the gap created when his brother Fraser (the Scotland Under-20s hooker in 2017) moved to Watsonians, Dan York is in the process of converting from prop to hooker with Glasgow Hawks, and Struan Dow has been a consistently strong performer at flanker for Hawks.
Meanwhile, Jack Mann missed six months through injury but played 40 minutes for Accies last weekend and is expected to start at Ayr this Saturday. He is an impressive physical specimen, nicknamed Ivan Drago by his team-mates, who is explosive with ball in hand in close quarters and has real speed in open space. And Andrew Nimmo, who joined Glasgow Hawks from Biggar this season, has been out through injury but is back training – and given the shortage of young loose-heads in the system at the moment, the stage two Academy player’s progress will be monitored closely.
When Hogg names his Under-20s squad for the Six Nations, there will inevitably be a few names from left-field identified by the SRU’s long-standing exiles network – recently reconfigured and rebranded as their ‘SQ’ programme – as there always is.
Among the ‘SQ’ players we may see returning from last year’s Under-20s programme are prop Sam Grahamslaw from Leicester Tigers, second-row Ewan Johnson from Racing Metro 92 and second-row Harry Butler of the Hartpury College/Gloucester.
Less likely to reappear this season is Callum McLelland, the stand-off who arrived at Edinburgh from rugby league amid great fanfare as an 18-year-old in November 2017 and went on to play eight games for the Under-20s last season, before deciding to return to the 13-man code with Leeds Rhinos before the start of the current campaign.