SUNDAY’S 83-10 victory over Samoa was a much-needed morale-boost to Scotland’s Under-20s team, who must have felt battered and bruised – emotionally as well as physically – by their shock defeat to Uruguay the previous Tuesday.
That loss to the South Americans at the Junior World Trophy in Kenya prompted a heated response in the press and on social media, and while the frustration was not aimed directly at the players, there will have been a sense of being damned by association.
The biggest concern was that this result – at the end of a long, hard season which also featured an 82-7 drubbing at home by Ireland in the Six Nations – might break their spirit.
What we saw against Samoa – admittedly a team which had completely run out of gas – is that these guys are made of sterner stuff than that. They showed the sort of character which will serve them well as they move forward in their still promising rugby careers.
But that win over Samoa cannot obscure the bigger takeaway from last week – apparent before this tournament but ruthlessly reinforced last Tuesday – which is that Scotland’s best young players are currently being let down by a system which has continually failed to meaningfully grow the player base or provide coaching and playing opportunities at an adequate level to keep pace with our rivals.
Inevitably, the Super Series ended up front and centre during the immediate post-mortem of the Uruguay loss and not without good reason. The fact that Kenny Murray, the under-20s’ head coach, and Jim Mallinder, Scottish Rugby’s performance director, both lamented lack of game time as a key contributor to the team’s travails was always going to turn the spotlight onto the league.
“There are probably half a dozen [Scotland Under-20s squad members] who are playing regular Super6 [because] those coaches want to improve players but they also want to win,” said Mallinder after the Uruguay loss. “This is why we are taking the bull by the horns and putting our under-20 team [called the FOSROC Future XV] in the competition. That is something which is going to happen as soon as we get back from this tournament, and we are contracting our under-20s so they all have full-time contracts at Edinburgh and Glasgow which is completely new.”
This Future XV idea looks like a sticking-plaster solution, especially as the league kicked off last weekend and the current Scotland age-grade players won’t be available to play until they have returned from Kenya and sat out a three-week recovery block, meaning that at least 13 members of the 29-strong squad named for the Championship will not be available until after round four.
In the event, the league’s newest side came within a whisker of beating Southern Knights in an entertaining first match of the campaign on Friday evening, which is fairly positive on the face of it. But only six of the match-day 23 were official Future XV players, with the rest borrowed during the week from other Super Series, Premiership or National League sides (including nine from Stirling Wolves who had a bye week). This is clearly not the sort of stable and professional environment that the other six clubs are working hard to engender in this league.
Looking ahead, we are now into the final full season of the original five-year Super6/Series franchise agreement. The clubs involved remain outwardly positive about the standard of rugby and the levels of professionalism across the league, but it remains to be seen if they will all jump at the chance to sign-up again.
As one key figure at one of the more successful Super Series clubs says: “People think it is a magical money tree, but it costs a lot in terms of both finance and volunteer time to run a Super Series team. It feels like a thankless task at times. The clubs involved are doing this because they believe it is the right thing to do for Scottish rugby – to help bridge that gap between the club and the professional game – but there is definitely a lot of things we all need to improve.”
A review is under way. Premiership and National One clubs have already been canvassed on their views and are expecting to meet with Murrayfield soon to further discuss the best way forward. The six competing clubs have completed separate questionnaires. If Super Series is to continue, the application process will have to start soon.
Significantly, the Scottish Rugby Union has a new governance structure which puts an emphasis on strategy after 12 years of whac-a-mole, top-down, short-term, fixes. Having a successful player development pathway is arguably the most important challenge facing the game in this country at this moment in time, so it is incumbent on the new structure to make sure that it is done right.
According to the minutes of the new Club Rugby Board meeting on 15th March: “The Vice-President [Keith Wallace] noted that any proposal beyond the original five years would need to be part of a revised strategy which would need to come to the Union Board for approval. He would update the Union Board on the CRB’s discussion in relation to Super6 at its next Meeting.”
This is a major test of the new governance structure. There was absolutely no point going through all the turmoil and cost of changing the set-up if we are going to carry on exactly as before.
If Super Series is to continue – and there are good arguments for that to be the case – then it needs to be clear what the competition is going to look like in terms of format, and what its role is going to be within the wider Scottish Rugby ecosystem. Fundamentally, what exactly is Super Series trying to achieve? What are the priorities?
Growing the player base, providing meaningful competition for more 16 to 18-year-olds, more and better coaching at all age-levels, player identification, the list of areas of concern goes on and on and on. Super Series isn’t solely to blame for the failings of the Scotland Under-20s programme in recent years, and it won’t be the solution by itself. But it is an important factor, and we need to get it right.