CARL HOGG will not name his Scotland Under-20s squad for this year’s Six Nations until next Tuesday, but he says the age-grade side are already well down the track in terms of their preparation for the start of the championship against Italy at Netherdale on 1st February.
Having been handed the head coach role back in October, Hogg – who is now based in Edinburgh while his family are still in Cheltenham – has had plenty of time to identify and get to know players these last three months, and expects the team to hit the ground running when they get their first proper run-out against the Scotland Club XV at Oriam next Tuesday night.
“It is a full-time role so I have been watching players in clubland and we have had sessions with Gregor [Townsend] supporting the Test team during the Autumn internationals, which has given me the benefit of looking at young players that I don’t necessarily know a huge amount about,” he explained. “And we were able to add sessions off the back of that which means we are starting to develop philosophies and understandings, so that when we go into the Six Nations it is not as raw and new as it maybe has been in the past.
“We also had three and a half days up at Condor [Royal Marines base near Arbroath) during December which was outstanding,” he added. “We talk about galvanising a group of players, and the marines at Condor are world class at doing that in their own unique style. Some of the values and some of the behaviours that the players exhibited there are exactly the values and behaviours we want going into the Six Nations – there is clearly a lot of transfer between what they do in the military and what we do in the rugby environment.
“Plus, we’ve just come off a pre-Six Nations camp which was very successful. We are trying to give these young players the best opportunity to be ready to perform in the Six Nations. The challenge is integrating players from the Premiership, the academies and the exiles network, and galvanising that group ahead of the first game against Italy.”
Matters of allegiance
Hogg revealed that there is likely to be “three or four” exiles in an initial training squad of 28, including second-row Ewan Johnson, who played for the team last season and will travel north from Racing Metro again.
The squad will not, however, include Cameron Redpath (Scotland Under-18s cap and son of former Scotland captain/Under-20s coach Bryan), Fraser Dingwall (former Scotland Under-16s captain and Under-18s player) or Gus Warr (Scottish Schools’ Cup finalist in 2017 with Dollar Academy and Scotland Under-18s cap), who have all been named in the England Under-20 Elite Player Squad.
Hogg insisted that the door will remain open to any Scottish qualified player who wants to commit to the thistle until such time as they are no longer eligible, but he cannot afford to waste time worrying about those who have slipped through the net.
“Cam [Redpath] is a very talented player and he has decided to go down the English route,” said the former back-row, who played alongside father Bryan, shrugged.
“There was [also] discussions with Gus and I know he has previously been interested, but, at the moment he sees his future as going down the England Under-20s route – whether he sees his future with England long-term is for him to decide,” Hogg added.Error, group does not exist! Check your syntax! (ID: 12)
The SRU’s desire to recruit players from across the globe to bolster the limited playing resources inside the country is no secret, with England the most obvious hunting ground – but it is not easy given the financial clout of the RFU, who provide significant financial incentives for Premiership clubs to field at least 15 English Qualified Players [EQPs] in their match-day squad each week, meaning that players lose value in an extremely competitive market place if they commit to a different country.
“I think, ultimately, if you are Scottish by heritage then you should want to play for your country,” said Hogg, who has a bit of experience in this matter having previously been forwards coach at Gloucester and head coach at Worcester Warriors. “Clearly EQP does have an influence on finances for the Premiership teams and I have been involved in that, but if you are Scottish and want to play for Scotland then that is what you do.
“And, similarly, if you are English and up here, you can play for England – it doesn’t define the country you play for, but it does make a difference as a director of rugby or a head coach.”
Another complicating factor for English based players is the Premiership club’s determination to use World Rugby’s Regulation Nine to limit release of players for national training camps outside of designated international windows. That led to four players being prevented from joining up with squad until five days before the start of last summer’s U20 World Championship in France, and could be an issue again this season.
“I have spoken to the English clubs and we get as much access as possible,” said Hogg. “But we are still bound by reg nine, so if they don’t want to release players out-with windows that is their choice.”
That means Scotland can only expect to have their exile players made available from five days before the Italy game, which is the same situation as with the senior team but more acute because the Under-20s is effectively a brand new set-up each season.
On the plus side, there is a good crop of young players inside the country at the moment at both Under-20s and Under-19s level, meaning that hopes are high of a relatively successful couple of years for the side.
“We’ll give them an opportunity and a platform to show both Dave Rennie and Richard Cockerill what they can do as potential professional players,” said Hogg, who is being assisted by fellow former Scotland caps Nikki Walker and Scott Lawson. “So, it is a fantastic opportunity, but we go back to the fact that they will succeed if the team succeeds – everything is first and foremost about this team, any individual success or accolade will come off the back of that.
“I think we’ve got a group of players that, given time and given the right opportunity, can be successful in both competitions (the Six Nations and the World Championship).”
Whether Hogg will be in charge long enough to see the younger players in the current set-up through to the end of their Under-20s journey in the summer of 2020 remains to be seen. He is now on a permanent SRU contract and will certainly stay in his current role through to the end of the World Rugby u20 World Championship in Argentina this coming June, but thereafter he would appear to be a good fit as next forwards coach at Glasgow Warriors when Jonathan Humphreys returns to Wales at the end of the season.
“My focus is here with the Under-20s,” Hogg insisted, when that possibility was put to him. “I’m really enjoying it and I’m really looking forward to the Six Nations. It’s a different pattern to coaching compared to what I have been doing for the last 10 to 12 years, it is a different challenge to galvanise and pull together a group from all different parts of the country and beyond in a really short period of time, and I am really excited about what the next few months will bring.”