SCOTLAND will be up against it at the World Rugby Under-20 Championship in Argentina next month, with their 10th place finish at last year’s tournament landing them in a bonafide ‘Group of Death’ alongside two genuine super-powers in New Zealand (six-times champions) and South Africa (who have only once failed to make the semi-finals in the 11 years the competition has been running), plus rapidly improving and ferociously physical Georgia (who were 31-39 winners when they faced Scotland during last year’s play-offs).
Head coach Carl Hogg named his 28-man squad for this daunting assignment at lunchtime today [Monday] and admitted that he had not spent a huge amount of time agonising over the composition of his selection, with a combination of injuries and a lack of depth making it a fairly straight-forward process.
“We obviously had the group that played during the Six Nations and I thought we made huge strides during that period – we certainly played very well against Wales that night at Meggetland [in round 4],” explained the coach. “We created a development fixture down in France [at the start of April] which I thought would be a good opportunity for those on the periphery of the squad to put their hands up, but unfortunately it became a very one-side contest, so it was relatively easy to put the 28 names together in the end.
“There are key lessons that we took from the 6 Nations about doing things well within the intensity of national age-grade rugby. It is probably something that we didn’t manage that well and master during the 6 Nations and we know that even losing bonus points could be crucial in the way you plot your way through this tournament.
“So, for us to do the simple things well under pressure over 80 minutes will be critical to our success and that is what we have been working on in our weekly sessions on Wednesday afternoons during the last few months. We will now have a short camp at St Andrews University where we will look to keep the intensity up, followed by a great fixture with Old Glory in Washington which gives us an extra week together to really develop that camp mentality.
“There is no doubt about it, these blokes really are a tightknit group, it is probably one of the tightest groups I have ever been involved with, but it is about developing that accountability within the group to take us to the next level.
Doing the simple things well
“We have a game-plan that allows real clarity but also flexibility,” he added. “If I go back to the Six Nations and that game against Wales, it shows what we are trying to achieve. We want to make good decisions with and without the ball, and I thought we achieved that over the 80 minutes [against Wales] at Meggetland.
“We are going to have to do likewise against South Africa and again against New Zealand. We are going to have to be very smart in the way we are trying to play the game and what we are trying to do. If the opposition are going to put 14 defenders into the line, then the smart space is behind the line. Likewise, if they are going to drop players back, we need the skill set and the ambition to exploit that space round the edges.”
As one door close, another opens
While open-side flanker Connor Boyle will carry on as captain of the side, Scotland will be without his back-row partner Charlie Jupp of Heriot’s, who was a mainstay of the side during the Six Nations but is now recovering from shoulder surgery.
On the plus side, the squad is boosted by the return of Ayr’s Marshall Sykes.
“There was a dilemma over whether Charlie could have played through it on a game to game basis, but I didn’t think it was right and proper for a young man at his stage in his career to delay the operation which would potentially offset him for next season,” surmised Hogg. “So, we had a decent conversation with all parties involved and I think the sensible thing was for Charlie to get that operation and move forward with his career thereafter.
“Marshall and Charlie are very similar – what I would call hybrid players, in that they can start six and then move into the middle-row, or vice-versa – which gives great flexibility.I always like to start with a big six who you can potentially move forward in the last 20 minutes, which gives you a couple of back-rowers on the bench.”
There is another new face in the back-row roster in the shape of Newcastle Falcons academy player and former England Under-18 cap Tom Marshall.
“He’s a real footballer, a converted centre, and he’s got real pace and power coming onto the ball – so that will be a really useful asset for us,” explained Hogg. “I think he brings something different to the back-row in that he’s got the ability to use his feet and use the ball to evade tacklers and get over the gain-line.
“He’s always been on our radar. To be fair to our SQ scouts, they keep us informed of those that are Scottish qualified, and certainly Tom is somebody we have tracked over the last number of months, and we’re delighted that he is involved with us going into a World Cup.
Leicester Tigers prospect Sam Grahamslaw missed all but Scotland’s opening Six Nations game with a back injury, which has since required surgery, and his absence from the squad is a major set-back.
“I thought Sam was outstanding in that first game against Italy, potentially the best player on the field on both sides, so it is a shame to lose him,” said Hogg. “You have to credit Murphy Walker, who had been playing tighthead but had to segue across to playing loose-head, which is not easy at all, and he has done that very well. It is unfortunate not to have Sam on the tour but that is part and parcel of our game.
Grahamslaw’s continued absence opens the door for Mak Wilson of Melrose. “He did his hamstring during the Six Nations, but he was in or around our squad then,” said Hogg. “He’s back fit now and available, and the great thing about Mak is that he’s got the versatility of playing both sides [loose-head and tight-head], and in a Junior World Cup the games come thick and fast, so we need that flexibility.”
Behind the scrum, Lomond MacPherson – initially from Oban but a Watsonians player last season – gets his chance on the wing.
“He’s been injured for the majority of the season, but he certainly impressed me during the game in France when it was very difficult for the winger to get the ball in hand, and he’s impressed me during the regular training sessions we’ve had on Wednesday afternoons. He’s a really good athlete, a powerful ball-carrier, who along with Jack Blain and Rory McMichael gives us real presence on the wings,” said Hogg.
Meanwhile, Jamie Dobie, the Merchiston Castle School and Scotland Under-18 scrum-half, who will join Glasgow Warriors on a full-time contract next season, is not included in the squad.
“There are considerations of his age and workload, and also he has exam periods and stuff,” concluded Hogg. “Also, it is a great opportunity for Roan Frostwick and Murray Scott to put a marker down as well. They are guys who have been in and around club systems and this gives them a platform to show what they can achieve.”