OUT of the frying pan and into the fire, the Scotland Under-20s team had a weekend off to recover from the bruising experiences of two heavy defeats to Wales away [36-3] and France at home [19-69] in the opening rounds of this Six Nations campaign, but must now get back into it by taking on the biggest and best resourced side in the championship at Myreside tonight [kick-off: 7.30pm].
England have won the Six Nations at this age-grade six times in the last ten years. Since 2007, Scotland have managed just one win over the Auld Enemy in 14 meetings, and the average margin of defeat has been exactly 28 points.
Steve Bates – the former Border Reivers and current England Under-20 head coach – is bringing north a match day squad containing five new caps, but has warned that this shouldn’t be taken as an indication that the visitors are looking to take it easy after two fairly comfortable wins at the start of this championship against Italy away [17-27] and Wales at home [37-12].
“We had a much-improved performance against Wales, but we are still looking to improve in certain areas of our game which we felt did not go quite as well as we would have liked. We saw some good individual performances against Wales, now we want to play cohesively as a team,” said Bates, when naming his team.
So, a tough evening awaits for the young Scots, but home stand-off Ross Thompson says the players believe they can compete at this level, and insists that they are making progress towards being able to do so for the full 80 minutes.
“England will be tough, they are a really good outfit. We’ve watched quite a lot of their games so we know what they will bring and we have talked about it in training so hopefully we can tackle it head on,” he said.
“We’ve had two tough games and two tough losses, but each camp when we’ve come back we have progressed quite a lot as a team and as individuals.”
“We know we will come up against really good players, no matter which side you are facing. It is just about playing for 80 minutes and matching them because we know we are good enough to do that.”
“We have really gelled together well. Obviously, you are kind of thrown into it – a camp here, a camp there and then playing in a game together – but we have pulled together pretty quickly.”
Thompson is typical of this current crop of young Scots. A talented individual with huge potential, but developing as a player the hard way – on a massively steep learning curve.
Having marshalled Stewart’s Melville to success in the Scottish School’s Cup last season, he moved west to take a place at Glasgow University studying law and joined up with Glasgow Hawks. He was taken on as an unpaid stage two member by the west coast branch of Scottish Rugby’s academy set-up, but had no real expectations about playing 1st XV level during this first season in the senior game, let alone representing his country at Under-20 level.
However, with last year’s Under-20s stand-off Josh Henderson being farmed off to the south coast of France by the SRU for a season, an opportunity to stake a claim for the Hawks number 10 jersey opened up – and Thompson grabbed it with both hands.
“I wasn’t sure what was going to happen at Glasgow Hawks because I went from schoolboy rugby straight into the Premiership which was obviously a huge lift in intensity and skill. I just went in with an open mind – to see how it went and go from there,” he reflects.
“The last couple of months have really been where I have started to develop. I have had great coaches at Glasgow Hawks – like Fin Gillies and Pete Horne – who have helped with all aspects of the game, and more recently the international coaches have helped me to be more consistent.”
“I wasn’t sure how fast the rugby was going to go. It was definitely something I wanted to keep doing, I was never going to stop playing just to focus on my degree, but obviously university takes up a large part of my week with essays everywhere.
“But the university and the rugby guys have all been really good in helping me manage that balance. The academy have devised a schedule so that I can come in in the morning and do my weight, and jump in wherever with other sessions to make sure I don’t miss out.”
At 18-years-old, Thompson is one of the youngest members of the squad, but he speaks with a maturity which belies his youth and which suggests that he might have the cool-headedness required to develop into an accomplished game manager.
“A big jump from school to Glasgow Hawks was trying to boss older players around and sometimes playing with professionals. Like at the start of the season I was playing with George Horne,” says Thompson, before enthusing about the impact that experience had on his own game.
“George is so quick – I really enjoyed playing with him – he gets everywhere on the pitch and now that he has taken his chance with Glasgow he has shown what he can do.
“I played 10 with him at 9 in maybe four games and I was having to react quickly to keep up with his speed of thought. You start to get used to the pace and the intensity and it makes you a better player.”
The other area where Thompson really feels he has developed during the last six months is in physicality.
“I have had to up that side of my game – making big tackles and watching the big runners who are targeting me,” he says, knowing fine well that ability to step up in defence – individually and collectively – will be key to Scotland Under-20 keeping it respectable against England on Friday night.
“We have shown glimpses of things in both games so far, but we need to put it together for 80 minutes. To score 19-points against a good French defence was pleasing, but we let in too many,” concludes Thompson.
Scotland U20 v England U20 Teams
Scotland: Paddy Dewhirst (Ayr); Rory McMichael (Glasgow Hawks), Stafford McDowall (Ayr), Callum McLelland (Edinburgh Rugby), Kyle Rowe (Glasgow Hawks); Ross Thompson (Glasgow Hawks), Charlie Chapman (Gloucester); Shaun Gunn (Edinburgh Accies), Robbie Smith© (Ayr), Finlay Richardson (Edinburgh Accies), Ewan Johnson (Racing 92), Jamie Hodgson (Watsonains), Martin Hughes (Heriots), Guy Graham (Hawick), Devante Onojaife (Northampton Saints). Subs: Bradley Clements (Ealing), Nathan McBeth (Lions), Murphy Walker (Strathallan School), Marshall Sykes (St Joseph’s College / Northampton Saints), Rory Darge (Melrose), Kaleem Barreto (Marr), Fraser Strachan (Northampton Saints), Logan Trotter (Stirling County).
England: Jordan Olowofela (Leicester Tigers); Tom Seabrook (Gloucester Rugby), Ollie Lawrence (Worcester Warriors), Will Butler© (Worcester Warriors), Cadan Murley (Harlequins); Tom Harwick (Leicester Tigers), Rory Brand (London Irish); Alex Seville (Gloucester Rugby), Gabriel Oghre (Wasps), Ehren Painter – (Northampton Saints, (Ted Hill (Worcester Warriors), Sam Lewis (Leicester Tigers), Josh Basham (London Irish), Aaron Hinkley (Gloucester Rugby), Sam Moore (Sale Sharks). Subs: Beck Cutting (Worcester Warriors), Toby Trinder (Northampton Saints), Joe Heyes (Leicester Tigers), James Scott (Worcester Warriors), Sean Reffell (Saracens), Ben White (Leicester Tigers), James Grayson (Northampton Saints), Fraser Dingwall (Northampton Saints).