U20 World Champs: relegation is an opportunity to rethink youth development strategy

Alan Lorimer discusses the reasons behind, and the implications of, Scotland's relegation from the World Rugby U20 Championship

Scotland Under-20s couldn't get to grips with Fiji on Saturday, and their defeat in that match meant relegation out of the World Rugby Championship next season. Image courtesy: World Rugby

IT is doubtful if any Scottish rugby fan has paid much attention to World Rugby’s U20 Trophy, but you can bet that come next year when Scotland play in this second tier competition there will be more than a little home interest.

By finishing 12th in the 2019 U20 Championship after losing to Fiji in their final game on Saturday, Scotland were relegated from the elite layer. This year’s Trophy takes place in Brazil from 9-21 July and follows a much simpler format than the Championship. Only eight teams take part: Pool A consists of Japan, Kenya, Uruguay and Brazil; while Pool B consists of Tonga, Portugal, Hong-Kong and Canada, with the the winners of each pool playing for the promotion spot. With all due respect to these sides, this is not where Scotland want or need to be.

The big question after this year’s U20 Championship is: why did Scotland suffer the drop?  The short answer is that this was always statistically likely. Scotland’s most frequent finishing position has been 10th. All it took was for the squad to be a shade weaker and, such is the ever increasing standard of rugby in all the countries taking part, the inevitable would happen.


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Even in a ’lean’ year, it’s worth stating that the 2019 Scotland Under-20 squad had some very good players, but while that is a necessary condition to compete at world level it is not sufficient. Check out the other participating countries, and you’ll soon discover that each national squad contains players with experience of professional rugby and/or international sevens.

When Scotland achieved their best ever finish of fifth in 2017 there was a clutch of players who brought real experience to the Scots’ performance, among them Darcy Graham, Blair Kinghorn, Matt Fagerson, Calum Hunter-Hill and Robbie Nairn.

This year. Scotland had a higher proportion than usual of Under-19s in the squad (14 out of the 28) indicating the depth of talent in last year’s Under-18s while at the same time suggesting that last year’s Under-19s were weaker than is the norm. It is a crying shame that some of the younger member of the squad, the likes of captain Connor Boyle, winger Jack Blain, second-row Cameron Henderson and centre Robbie McCallum will now be deprived another bite at the World Championship cherry having had another year of experience and physical growth playing senior rugby under their belt.

Such variability will always happen in a small country like Scotland where resources are meagre. England, by contrast, with 12 Premiership and two Championship Academies, has a relentless production-line of players, many of them already exposed to the tougher conditions of top level senior rugby. Ditto this year’s champions France and the big three southern hemisphere countries.  With such large numbers there are bound to be emerging props weighing in excess of 125kg and backline players with exceptional rugby skills.

Before we beat ourselves up following the 2019 result, it shouldn’t be forgotten that last year Ireland only narrowly avoided the chop after a late surge secured a 39-33 win over Japan in the 11th-12th place play-odd.  Moreover Italy, who are now doing rather well in the championship, dropped out in 2009 and 2012

It is clear that Scotland Under-20 head coach, Carl Hogg,  felt he did not have depth in his squad such was his (over) use of front-line players, despite the cruel schedule of 5 games in 17 days. Inevitably, without sensible rotation, players will tire and that is when mistakes are made, often critical ones that can affect final outcomes.

Scotland had plenty of possession on Saturday but lacked the zip we have seen in flashes in previous matches, which might be taken as another indication of exhaustion.

Growing the player pool

That brings us back to the age-old issue of how to increase the base and how best to prepare the top part of the pyramid. Significantly, the make-up of age grade teams has reflected the dominance of the independent school system,  suggesting  that something is going wrong in youth rugby.

Independent schools – or to be more accurate a group of seven such establishments – do an excellent job in coaching young rugby players, but given that this sector accounts for just 4.7% of the total school population, what, one wonders, is happening to the other 95.3%.  It would be tempting to think that the state sector could be a power-house of sport but in the current climate of education where teachers are being ground into the ground under an avalanche of paperwork and new initiatives, after school sport adds up to very little.

You might legitimately ask if state schools should be obliged to lay on an extra curriculum of rugby. After all, any youngster interested in say, athletics, swimming, basketball etc would seek out appropriate clubs for both coaching and competition in their chosen sport.  Why should rugby be different?

State school rugby is not entirely dead. Carrick Academy, Preston Lodge HS and some of the Borders schools show that it does remain part of sporting culture. But, in the main school, rugby has shrunk to the point of it almost disappearing, despite what Murrayfield may claim.

My old school, Harris Academy, and its Dundee rival Morgan Academy, are typical examples.  And look at Fife schools – Madras College, Waid Academy, Kirkcaldy HS, Dunfermline HS etc – not much rugby in these former strongholds. Perhaps the biggest miss is Aberdeen GS, which was a veritable powerhouse, but has now disappeared off the rugby map.

If state schools are not the solution, then what is? The answer is clubs, whether working alone or in conjunction with those isolated pockets of state school rugby. France, for example, does not rely on schools. Clubs there are the driving force.

Club limitations

While it is tempting to believe that clubs could replicate what independent schools achieve in their rugby programmes the reality is different. Clubs do not have the same contact time with their charges as schools have, often they do not have the quality of playing fields enjoyed by the established independent schools, and, of course, they do not have the quality and quantity of coaching personnel found in the likes of George Watson’s College for example. Funding, as always, is a critical issue.

Another problem is that many clubs are simply too small to run viable Under-18 teams and moreover are geographically isolated, the combination of both these factors making for local leagues that often do not reach a high standard.

Regional Academies have to some extent addressed these problems by identifying and then hot-housing players with talent. But with precious little competitive rugby being offered by these academies their ‘students’ have only limited means to develop in the way they should.

At the top end of youth rugby it does seem reasonable that the clubs should play in the same conferences as the top schools. This would surely expose more youngsters to intensive rugby and in turn broaden the base of those players capable of moving to the next stage whether that be on a professional path or, for most, a good level of amateur rugby.

And Murrayfield must do much more to invest in club rugby. For starter,  it should insist that each Super 6 club has a robust youth programme. Boroughmuir have started this and along with Stirling and Ayr are the models which other youth clubs should look at.

Perhaps, too, time should be set aside for more sevens rugby. Fiji devote six months to the short game, so it is little wonder that their best young players have the skills so poetically displayed against Scotland on Saturday. Sevens not only develops excellent running skills but also what is needed in defensive patterns.

In the meantime, there has to be an immediate set of plans worked out to prepare the Scotland Under-20s for the all-important 2020 Trophy competition, victory in which cannot be taken as a ‘given’. Simultaneously, an overall review of the age-grade structures must be undertaken and radical action implemented if required. Otherwise Scotland could either have permanent residence in the Trophy competition or become the yo-yo side of the Championship.

The Under-20s programme is a key development tool for Scotland’s best young talent, and also a major draw for dual-qualified players such as No 8 Tom Marshall, flanker Marshall Sykes, second-row Ewan Johnson, hooker Ewan Ashman and centre Cameron Anderson from this year’s crop. In previous years, players such as recent Glasgow Warriors signing George Thornton and full Scotland squad member Rory Hutchinson have come through the programme. We can just about get away with one year away from the top table, but any more than that would be a major problem.


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Alan Lorimer
About Alan Lorimer 110 Articles
Scotland rugby correspondent for The Times for six years and subsequently contributed to Sunday Times, Daily and Sunday Telegraph, Scotsman, Herald, Scotland on Sunday, Sunday Herald and Reuters. Worked in Radio for BBC. Alan is Scottish rugby journalism's leading voice when it comes to youth and schools rugby.

16 Comments

  1. One issue linked to the loss of Youth players is the SRU choice of 1st Sept, instead of 1st Jan, for the age cut-off.

    It doesn’t match the Scottish School year [1-Jan approx], or the Representative one [1-Jan], or the one used by other major sports [football 1-Jan].

    After playing mini-rugby with their friends as a year group (P3-P7), on entering Youth rugby players are split by “1-Sept”.
    This causes unnecessary disruption and leads to player loss, as boys hate playing against “the year above”.

    Someone needs to challenge the SRU on their age cut-off date [1-Sept].
    – For Club-Youth rugby it only makes sense because “that is how it’s always been”.
    – For School-Youth rugby this is a change imposed last season on the Conferences, and it makes no sense for School rugby to use 1-Sept as it splits school year groups.

    Why do the SRU use 1-Sept as the age cut-off date for School Competitions, when the Scottish School year system fits better with 1-Jan?

    Negatives:
    – The 1-Sept cut-off splits-up groups of school friends and year groups.
    – It leads to weak/new players quitting as they are forced to play against boys from “the year above”.
    – You cannot select a Representative U-16 team, having watched an U-16 match, as about a third of the players will be too old. (meaning the players who are available probably rely on these older players to control their games)
    – It doesn’t match other major sports (football) – kids like to know who their peers are.

    Awaiting for someone to provide some good reasons for using 1-Sept rather than 1-Jan please.

    The SRU like to make things difficult for themselves, without ever supplying an explanation!

    Thanks
    Mike (Mini/Club/School coach for at least 12 years)

    —–
    Age cut-off dates currently are:
    Scottish School years = 1-Mar, but most Jan/Feb babies defer so in effect 1-Jan.
    P3 to P7 Rugby = by school year [1-Jan approx]
    Representative rugby = 1-Jan
    Scottish boys football = 1-Jan
    S1-S6 Rugby = now U-xx based on 1-Sept

  2. Genuine question, are there any really successful U20 coaches who have spent significant time coaching in the senior game? Look at England, Coaching system dedicated to age group all sacked for an ex Prem Coach and gone from 1st / 2nd every year to 5-8 play offs, coincidence?
    Easy to forgive the players, especially if they learn but paralysing fear of failure (look how much better we played v NZ and when games were all but done)tiredness via poor rotation, how quickly heads dropped etc etc, speak to me of a Coach with little idea how to deal with young players.
    Time for a coach or group of coaches to be dedicated to this level, maybe starting with ex Scotland international and one of the aforementioned specialist Eng age group coaches Peter Walton?

    • Totally agree – dealing with a bunch of young players completely different from coaching adults.
      The U20s looked like they were petrified most of the time.
      Being shit-scared of the consequences of losing is not a good mind-set.

  3. Never blame the boys please – these guys try their best. If the team is not good enough and/or robust enough then is that not about organisation and structure of our player development e.g. my son is 6′ 4″ 19st 2nd row and played Nat 2 last season – I would have thought there would be some interest in developing him due to his size and robustness alone but doesn’t seem to be.

    Also we have the ridiculous situation of Scotland’s biggest city with a large student population from all over the country not represented in Super 6. Where are these boys supposed to play to get exposed to tougher competition?

  4. Good article Alan. The main problem I see is that the Independent School’s main focus is on the U16/U18 cup competitions. As a result, these players have a very well structured and on the whole, competitive fixture list prior to Christmas. After that, the focus disappears and the players play very little meaningful rugby. It’s difficult for some clubs to offer them competitive fixtures because they cannot sign-up to operate in a youth conference for the full season – in part due to the max game time directive The compromise solution could involve schools only offering rugby in term 1 – clubs could run a similar program pre-Christmas; players who want to play after Christmas join clubs and the SRU introduce a league / play-off programme that builds towards season-end rather than simply petering out.

  5. As usual no mention of public schools creaming off much of the talent produced by state schools and clubs with “scholarships” (bribery).
    This practice underminerrs the incentive for others to produce players , reduces the numbers playing the game and weakens the whole system.

    • The “bribe” being what, exactly? A free/subsidised education? Isn’t that what state schools offer?

      Why does it remove the incentive to produce players? Because people only want success for themselves, not the player himself? A bit selfish, don’t you think?

      Why does it reduce the numbers playing the game? It provides a place for another child to play in that team, does it not?

      How does it “weaken the whole system” if good players are being exposed to a higher standard of rugby?

    • It removes the incentive because the clubs and schools who produce them are left at a disadvantage when their players are poached!
      It reduces the numbers playing the game because instead of developing their own players thet rely on poached talent and by not developing their own players it weakens the whole system.
      The public schools use their rugby success to drive pupil recruitment. It is a commercial arrangement which is to the detriment of the school game. We will never again see a state school/club win all 3 Youth competitions like Howe/Bell Baxter did a few years back.

  6. An excellent and well balanced article.

    Our routine struggles at U20 RWC level can be boiled down to a few main issues, I’d suggest

    1) The competition structure is brutal – Ireland were a hair’s breadth away from relegation last year.
    2) Our youngsters are typically genetically lightweight relative to our opponents e.g. Georgia monstered us.
    3) Added to 2), the prevalence of drugs at youth level in Scotland is thankfully much less than in certain other countries.
    4) We have far fewer overseas players coming in at U20 level to counteract our lack of size/quality than at full international level.

    If anyone has any ideas how to produce gnarled 115-120kg props at age 18/19 then let them come forward.

    As far as the schools/clubs debate some good points made…but if you were a Headmaster at an Independent school, why would you risk relegation from the top tiers, when it’s a key pupil recruiting factor?

    And perhaps the clubs should agree a true national youth league before anything else – I don’t see the Borders teams playing in the same league as the likes of Stirling County, do you? I also don’t see the likes of Highland complaining about the distances they have to travel to play games, incidentally…

    • There’s a major difference between the Colt and Shogun Conferences.

      The competitive season for the Colt Conference extends to 5 fixtures, whilst the top Club Conference campaign was 12 matches.

      And we question why the U20s, with so many private schools boys in their rank, aren’t competition ready.

    • The schools league season is shorter. The overall fixture list for the season is much harder than that of the clubs, however. You really think that it’s the independent schools players who aren’t battle hardened by a higher standard of competition? Wow.

  7. Another review of age grade rugby – we had one a few years ago to get the private schools into a structured sru controlled league system – now can someone tell me improvements have actually been mad was a result of that review.

  8. An excellent article, echoing what many clubs with substantial youth sections have been advocating for years. Unfortunately, Murrayfield have only paid lip-service to clubs endeavouring to develop young players; not much financially backing, and little strategic thinking. No wonder we are now in a bit of a pickle!

  9. A good article. I think the side really missed Grahamslaw who is a rare (at this level) full size Scottish prop and a prospect to boot. Walker shuffling across wasn’t ideal though I’m not convinced he’d have gone any better at tighthead.

    Also Mann being injured was a blow. He’s another who at 104kg is a decent size and along with Marshall and van Niekerk who are similar could have freed up Sykes to rotate in at lock rather than flogging Johnson and Henderson. Darge was another miss from the backrow. That’s 3 players who all would arguably have started and at at the very least would have seen our depth much improved. Surprised Butler didn’t go ahead of Bundy or Leatherbarrow as well as his size would have been useful to rotate in.

  10. This is by far the most sensible thing i’ve read regarding the reasons for and the implications of this relegations. Other seasoned rugby journalists and commentators have used the word embarrassing to describe it and whilst it is certainly disappointing I think that language is inappropriate. You can’t fault these young guys for their effort but as you rightly point out we a. don’t have a great track record at this age group anyway and b. there is a big proportion of this squad who fall into the really young category. Thanks too for highlighting the part played by the independent schools because i’ve also seen a lot of misinformed nonsense spoken about this that is more about inverse snobbery than than rugby. By my own reckoning, and I may be out one or two either way this U20 squad is about 50/50 and whilst this doesn’t reflect the balance in the school population its hardly the fault of the independent schools that state schools aren’t playing rugby. It’s funny that some of the bile that has been spewed at the supposed soft posh boys in the U20s squad seems to go away once you get to full international level as i’ve never seen anyone complain about how robust the likes of John Barclay or Stuart Mcinally are.

  11. We shouldn’t over-react to this relegation. Alan Lorimer’s article is a balanced one whose reasonableness stands out in comparison with some other comments this weekend. These young men will have given their best – don’t blame them. They are still the future of our game – lets not disillusion them out of playing with damning criticism. Alongside Alan’s article I think the following are relevant questions to be asked
    a) Only 3 players who played for Scotland u16, four years ago were present at this world cup – Thompson, Davidson, McMichael. What has happened to the other 25 in that time? We know 3 of them – Dingwall, Redpath and Christie – are playing for England. Should we take up spaces in our development teams with players not prepared to commit to Scotland? How many of the others have walked away from the game?
    b) Were the number of ‘injuries’ higher in this squad than normal, and if so why? Finlay Scott, Angus Fraser, Rory Darge, Charlie Jupp, Jack Mann, Sam Grahamslaw, Rauridh McLean were all missing through injury. What happened to Davis & Spencer, brought over 18 months ago from SA into the Academy, and then ‘disappeared’ around 6 Nations time – deemed not good enough? injured?
    c) Would there be some advantage in one coach taking an age group through from u16 to u20 and working with them over 5 years? Or do we need specialists at u16, u18 and u20 who we retain year after year and who are seen as being experts in delivering the age grade development necessary at their particular age grade? At the moment it feels as though we use age grade rugby as a ‘coach development pathway’ as much as a ‘player development pathway’?

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