SPEED AND SIMPLICITY will be the two guiding principles for Scotland Under-20s when they take on France in Pau on Friday night, according to head coach Carl Hogg. The age-grade side have come up short at home against Italy then Ireland in the opening two rounds of this season’s Six Nations campaign but have shown in patches that they are capable of being competitive at this level – so the challenge this week is to play to their strengths and not worry too much about following a set structure.
“The first couple of weeks have been disappointing, we know we haven’t reached the heights that we can achieve as a group, and the beauty of France is that it is a great place to go and play rugby,” said Hogg. “It’s different – under the lights on Friday night in a great amphitheatre – so we need to be bold and go out there to play.
“As I’ve said to the players, we’ve got to be brave – we’ve got to go right from the off and have the mentality that we are going there to win the game.
“We don’t want to sit back and get stuck in some arm-wrestle. We know that if we can get the speed of the game high, and get to multi-phase, then we can really stress a big, strong, heavy French side. But we’ve got to make sure that we play the game on our terms.
“We are up against a very stereotypically French team where there is lots of off-loads,” he added. “They want to play fast, but also want to take the pace out of the game at times with long stoppages so that their big 125 kilo forwards can have a breather. So, that gives us a huge opportunity if we can get pace into the game to stress that.”
While Hogg has been generally frustrated by how the first two rounds of matches have gone, he says there are aspects of his team’s performances which suggest that better days can be within their grasp.
“There were elements where we were good for periods of time, but our error-count has been high, and we need to address that,” he said. “If we over-think the game – become too thought-bound and it becomes structured – then we’ll really struggle.
“It has been interesting to see players coming [into the team] from different backgrounds, and the information they can take on board and how much they can compute on game-day. So, it us up to the coaching staff to realise what we can retain which is useful, and what perhaps makes players over-hesitant and think too much about the game. I want to free the player up on Friday night so that we just go out and play our natural game.
“There’s clearly a responsibility with nine and ten to make sure we are playing in the right areas of the field, but the big thing for us is the pace we play the game at, both when the ball is alive and in dead time – for us to eliminate the static time in the game.”
With that in mind, Stirling County’s Grant Hughes comes straight into the side at inside-centre after recovering from a shoulder injury which kept him out the earlier rounds, in place of injured Cameron Anderson of Wasps.
“He’s a very good communicator and organiser at 12, so I’m hoping that will help out our nine and ten, plus add some options in our back-play as a genuine second-receiver,” explained Hogg. “Hopefully that will give us more width in our attack and get us to multi-phase.”
Hughes is partnered in the centre by Ayr’s Ollie Smith, who started at full-back against Italy but missed the Ireland game due to a bruised calf; and Matt Davidson of London Scottish replaces Rufus McLean at full-back.
In the pack, Ross Bundy (Stirling County) comes in at No 8. “He’s looked lively off the bench, he’s always had a high work-rate and with Kwagga van Niekirk not being available this week he gives us good balance,” explained Hogg. “I like Charlie Jupp at six, he gives us a huge amount of work-rate. Connor Boyle is an out-and-out seven, and Ross coming in at eight will give us that same work-rate and also, hopefully, some go-forward.”
Loose-head prop Sam Grahamslaw (Leicetser Tigers) was a late call-off with a back problem against Ireland, meaning Murphy Walker (Stirling County) shifted across the front-row to tight-head, and Euan McLaren started at tight-head. Grahamslaw is still not fit – he’ll hopefully be back for Wales in two weeks’ time – so Hogg has stuck with the same front-row combination.
“To be fair to Euan, and particularly Murphy moving from right to left [in the scrum], I thought our scrum was excellent against Ireland,” he said. “France had a few issues against England around scrum-time but I’m sure they’ll look to shore that up this weekend, especially at home.”
France were U20 World Champions last summer, and – while stand-off Romain Ntamack and tight-head prop Demba Bamba have no graduated to the senior side and will start against Scotland on Saturday – around six of that team are likely to be involved on Friday night. France won their opening game of the Championship at home to Wales [32-10] but lost away to England [31-19] last time out.
“There’s a big No 8 called Jordan Joseph who is a handful, he’s a big ball-carrier and a real focal point for their forward pack,” said Hogg. “The key for us is to chop-tackle and make the contest on the floor, which they are not particularly comfortable with. If we get caught in an arm-wrestle up top then it will be a long day.”
“The great thing about the opportunity on Friday night is that it is something different and unique,” he concluded. “When you arrive in France, it is a different atmosphere than you get in the UK – a different vibe in the ground. It can be pretty hostile if you let it be. But our group is really looking forward to getting their chest out, and really being bold and brave – especially in that first 20 minutes when we’ll put a marker down in terms of the pace we want to play the game at.”
Scotland Under-20 (versus France at Stade du Hameau in Pau on Friday – kick-off 8pm GMT/ 9pm local): Matt Davidson (London Scottish); Rory McMichael (Heriot’s), Ollie Smith (Ayr), Grant Hughes (Stirling County), 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)©, Ross Bundy (Stirling County), Substitutes: Angus Fraser (Glasgow Hawks), Andrew Nimmo (Glasgow Hawks), Will Hurd (Cardiff Metropolitan University), Jack Mann (Edinburgh Accies), Teddy Leatherbarrow (Sale Sharks), Murray Scott (Watsonians), Nathan Chamberlain (Bristol Bears), Robbie McCallum (Complutense Cisneros).