THE Scotland Under-20s programme is not about the starting point, and it is not really about the destination, but it most certainly is about the journey. With the players in camp virtually non-stop right through this Six Nations window, it is a golden opportunity for some of the country’s brightest prospects to get a better understanding of what is expected of professional rugby players, both in terms of lifestyle away from the pitch, and in terms dealing with high intensity rugby on the park week after week.
It has been a demanding few weeks and the team have not yet tasted victory in three outings so far, but head coach Carl Hogg believes that there has been significant progress made. Scotland have shown that when they hit their straps they can be a handful for any team in this competition, and the next step is to smooth out their performances so that they are able to stay in the fight when things are going against them.
That importance of being able to cope with the ebb and flow of a game was vividly demonstrated in Scotland’s last outing against France, when they lost 21 unanswered points in front of a 16-000 capacity crowd in the opening half hour but fought back bravely to score four tries and edge into a narrow 21-22 lead ten minutes after half-time, only to concede three more tries which ultimately led to a 42-27 loss.
“Last Friday night was a wonderful experience for the players,” said Hogg. “It was interesting coming off the bus into a tunnel of spectators, which our boys have never been exposed to. I think it was a fantastic learning curve – perhaps the first 20 minutes we never really got our minds in the right place because it is unique, it’s different, but I actually thought we warmed to the task after that. We looked a good side in that middle period of the game.
“There are aspects of our game which are really pleasing, especially with the ball in hand when we get opportunities, we look very sharp and very clinical,” he continued. “The key challenge for us – which we have discussed as a group all week – is getting that base layer to perform consistently and execute consistently under pressure. That’s the key to an 80-minute performance.
“At the moment, we can go out and create tries and create opportunities, but can we sit in the contest at base layer when it is about doing the simple things time after time. That’s the real challenge for us. At the moment, we haven’t been able to do that consistently over 80-minutes.
“I think there has been huge improvements over the first three games, especially in our understanding around defence and attack shape. But I keep coming back to the basics. In a true contest of international rugby, it’s not necessarily the bells and whistles that win games, it’s the basics consistently done well under pressure – especially when the intensity and physicality of a game ramps up.”
Next up for the young Scots is Wales at Meggetland on Friday night. The visitors travel north in high spirits after a gritty 11-10 victory over England, secured with an injury time try from replacement wing Deon Smith, in their last match.
“This will be different to France, we’re back to something we know with home advantage, and we’re going into our fourth game having made good progress over the three games so far,” said Hogg. “We’re looking forward to putting it all together, but I’ll go back to challenging the players to do the basics well and that’ll give us the opportunity because there’s enough skill and ability in the group.
“Wales are very similar to the full national team in terms of characteristics – good hard straight defensive press, very aggressive in their line speed, they will look to jackal and have that threat over ball, and they’re very structured in the back end of the field so exits are really simple. Inside their own half they’ll look to kick very early, so they won’t expose themselves to any risk, they’re looking to get high field position to squeeze you in possession and territory.”
Hogg confirmed that prop Sam Grahamslaw and winger/full-back Rufus McLean won’t be seen in action again during this championship due to injury.
“With Rufus, it was his ankle, but it is now starting to give him some pain round his groin and hip area, so he won’t be available for the rest of the Six Nations,” he explained. “Sam has a back injury. He’s getting assessed again. It looks as if it is more significant than we first thought, so he’ll also be out for the rest of the Six Nations.”
In Grahamslaw’s absence, Stirling County tight-head Murphy Walker has deputised at loose-head, with Ayr’s Euan McLaren taking over the No 3 jersey.
“I think that pair have done a tremendous job, especially Euan who hasn’t had a lot of game time – due to injuries – coming into the Six Nations, and I think he’s performed outstandingly well around the set-piece and also in defence,” said Hogg. “For Murphy to adapt in a short period of time and go against a big French pack and win penalties like he did is all credit to him and the pack behind him.”
Scotland Under-20 (versus Wales at Meggetland on Friday – kick-off 7.30pm): Matt Davidson (London Scottish); Rory McMichael (Heriot’s), Cameron Anderson (Wasps), Robbie McCallum (Complutense Cisneros), Jack Blain (Heriot’s); Ross Thompson (Glasgow Hawks), Roan Frostwick (Currie Chieftains); Murphy Walker (Stirling County), Ewan Ashman (Sale Sharks), Euan McLaren (Ayr), Ewan Johnson (Racing 92), Cameron Henderson (Stirling County), Charlie Jupp (Heriot’s), Connor Boyle (Watsonians)©, Kwagga van Niekerk (Lions). Substitutes: Angus Fraser (Glasgow Hawks), Andrew Nimmo (Glasgow Hawks), Will Hurd (Cardiff Metropolitan University), Ross Bundy (Stirling County), Jack Mann (Edinburgh Accies), Murray Scott (Watsonians), Nathan Chamberlain (Bristol Bears), Ollie Smith (Ayr).