SCOTLAND Under-20s will head down to Franklin’s Gardens in Northampton this weekend on an SAS mission. It is not a case of ‘who dares wins’ – although that sort of bravery and commitment will certainly be helpful against England – but another motto more specific to this particular team which head coach Carl Hogg will have drilled into his players.
“We, as an Under-20s management group, have had a mantra of ‘speed and smart’ throughout this campaign – referring to the speed at which we can execute our game-plan and the importance of smart decision-making,” he explained on Wednesday lunchtime, whilst naming his team for the final round of this year’s Six Nations campaign. “It is something we’ve developed really nicely over the last six or seven weeks and it’s something that we have to maintain going into this game and onwards to the Junior World Cup [in June].”
Hogg has added Jack Mann of Edinburgh Accies to the side at No 8 in place of Kwagga van Niekerk (who has a head knock). “We’ve got good balance across the back-row, with Charlie Jupp as a real athlete and an additional line-out option, Connor Boyle as an out-and-out seven, and Jack Mann similar to Kwagga in that he will give us ball-carrying and allow us to win gain-lines,” said the coach.
Apart from that, Hogg has stuck to the team which picked up a first win in the campaign last time out against Wales, reflecting his satisfaction at the way the players have bought into both his basic rugby philosophy and general sporting mentality.
“It wasn’t a great night for rugby, it was wet and windy, and the balance between our running game and kicking game was second to none – it was the point of difference which won us the match,” he reflected.
“That’s something we’ve worked really hard on in training – creating an environment where players have to make a decision by looking at whether there’s lots of numbers in back-field and we run or whether the opposition have emptied the back-field so we can use a kick option as an attacking weapon. I thought the boys got that spot-on on Friday night.”
A work in progress
The team may have lost their previous three matches this year but there were clear signs of progress in each of those outings against Italy, Ireland and France, before things finally clicked for something close to the full 80-minutes against Wales.
“I think that’s down to just getting more experience of playing and training at this intensity,” said Hogg. “Some of the guys are not playing regular Premiership club rugby, which makes it very difficult to make that jump into age-grade Test match level rugby. Training alongside and against the Test team has been hugely beneficial because it lets our players see the standard of execution and the pace at which it is played. And they get used to that over a period of time.”
The fourth and final try Scotland scored against Wales typified the community of belief Hogg has managed to instil, with centre Robbie McCallum hoovering up a dropped Welsh pass in midfield and generating quick ball in contact off which stand-off Ross Thompson angled a grubber in behind. Jack Blain anticipated what was coming and managed to get a foot in ahead of his opposite number to hack on, and second-row Cameron Henderson had the athleticism and handling ability to gather before feeding back to Blain for a canter home.
In the blink of an eye, Scotland had transformed a nothing situation into a try, not necessarily through pin-point accuracy but because everyone was on the same wavelength.
“The try was fortuitous because it took a bounce, but I think the decision making was excellent,” said Hogg. “And I go back to the coaching philosophy: we’ve tried to create an environment where we create a choice for players, rather than just dictate that this is a run-play or this is a kick-play, we create a scenario where players have to make decisions during training.
“Ross made an excellent choice, and although the execution wasn’t 100 percent we put ourselves in position to get the bounce of the ball. Three of the four tries came from a kicking game based on what the opposition presented, and I was really, really pleased with that.”
Just as impressive as their decision-making was the team’s organisation, discipline and fitness in defence, typified by a passage of play midway through the second half in which Scotland soaked up wave upon wave of Wales attack over 27 phases, making 34 tackles during a relentless 3.52 minutes.
Hogg is in no doubt that Scotland will have to produce the same combination of intelligence and resilience on Friday night if they are to pick up a first ever away win against England since fixtures began at this age-grade back in 2007.
The opposition have lost twice on the road in this Six Nations – to Ireland and Wales – but were comfortable winners at home to France and Italy.
“Ironically, I probably know more about the English boys than I do our boys,” revealed Hogg, who has spent most of his coaching career south of the border working with Leeds, London Welsh, Gloucester and Worcester. “They’ve got a lot of talent, but they tend to be a little bit individual-based, so that’s where I think we can get the point of difference – our collective effort against their individuals.
“There’s no doubt that they’ll be a tough challenge on Friday, but they are beatable, and we’ve got to take a huge amount of confidence from Friday night going into the game,” he concluded.
Scotland Under-20 (versus England at Franklin’s Gardens on Friday – kick-off 7.45pm): 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)©, Jack Mann (Edinburgh Accies). Substitutes: Angus Fraser (Glasgow Hawks), Andrew Nimmo (Glasgow Hawks), Will Hurd (Cardiff Metropolitan University), Ross Bundy (Stirling County), Teddy Leatherbarrow (Sale Sharks), Murray Scott (Watsonians), Nathan Chamberlain (Bristol Bears), Ollie Smith (Ayr).