AFTER a stuttering start – both individually and collectively – Ross Thompson and the Scotland Under-20s team managed to build up a decent head of steam through this year’s Six Nations campaign, with the undoubted high-point being their excellent win over Wales in their penultimate match at Meggetland.
Scotland then lost their final match away to England but were far more competitive than the 45-7 final score-line suggests (the match was tied until a try in the third minute of injury time in the first half edged the home side into a narrow 12-7 lead at the break).
All in all, a record of one win from five matches in the campaign is nothing to write home about, but with this being his second year in the Under-20s programme, Thompson knows through experience that slow starts are almost inevitable for a country of Scotland’s playing resources.
“In the Italy and the Ireland games during the Six Nations, we were all a bit slow, just because you don’t get that level of rugby consistently in Scotland,” be reflects. “Maybe some of the other countries are more exposed to that level more often, but in the last two years we have been up to speed by the third, fourth and fifth matches of the 6 Nations.
Thompson, who struggled for form and fitness throughout last season, gave a maestro performance from stand-off in that Wales encounter, and he will have to be at a similar standard on Tuesday afternoon if the age-grade side are to have any chance of causing an upset against South Africa in their World Rugby U20 Championship opener at the Racecourse Stadium in Rosario, Argentina.
Coaching is key
Carl Hogg coached the team throughout the Six Nations, and will oversee the side during the World Championship, before leaving Scottish Rugby to take charge of the forwards at the Ospreys next season.
The former Melrose, Leeds and Scotland back-row, who has 12 years coaching experience in the English Premiership and also had a brief stint working with the senior Scotland team last summer, has instilled a simple but effective rugby philosophy which the players have clearly bought into.
“We talk a lot about playing at speed and being smarter – they are the two things we really focus on,” says Thompson.“ So, much like the national team, we need to be physically fit and have good skills because you can play the most expansive game but if you can’t land a five-metre pass then it just won’t work.
“You can overcomplicate things, but really it is just about doing the basics and the easy things well, repetitively. Ball presentation is key so the scrum-half can get it away quickly.”
“I think Carl has instilled quite a lot of confidence into us. For myself, he has really helped my find my form. The boys have bought into the style of rugby he wants to play because they’ve bought into him.”
Hitting the ground running
The home-based Under-20s squad members have not played much rugby since the end of the Six Nations, but Thompson believes that the side will be ready to hit the ground running against South Africa, having sharpened themselves up during the last few weeks with a no-holds-barred internal match a few days before leaving Scotland and another hit-out against Old Glory DC in Washington last Tuesday (when he kicked five from five conversions, including a couple of touch-liners).
“The home-based players have trained a lot in our own Academies [since the Six Nations] and every Wednesday we have had Under-20s sessions either at Oriam or Ravenscraig, doing a lot of conditioning, playing conditioned games and then finishing off with work in our units,” he says.
With New Zealand and Georgia also in their pool, Scotland are going to have to do it the hard way if they eclipse their previous tournament best when they finished fifth in Georgia in 2017.
“The hardest part is going straight from a game to a three-day rest and then into another big game,” reflects Thompson. “The turnaround is ridiculous between such physical games, you have to be able to recover quickly and not over train.
“And we have to make sure that we hit the ground running so the week we had in Washington concentrating on training will help us with that.
“These are once in a lifetime experiences, but you have to put that to the back of your mind and concentrate on the job in hand. We just need to tackle whatever comes at us head on.”