THE cyclical nature of age-grade rugby means that Scotland Under-20s will inevitably be taking a step into the dark when they play their Italian counterparts at Netherdale in Gala tomorrow night. Head coach Carl Hogg and his backroom team have done as much homework as they can, but, ultimately, they must rely on looking inwards for the answers as to how to get their Six Nations campaign off to a flying start.
“I think there is five or six [Italian] players who were involved last year that are available again this year, and the two coaches are the same, so we’ve looked at how Italy played in the Junior World Cup against ourselves and other nations – but, really, it is very much about us getting our game on the field,” explained Hogg, after naming his team earlier today [Wednesday].
“The way we want to play the game is very much the Scottish style: at tempo and at speed,” he added. “It is quite evident to me coming back home [after several seasons coaching in the English Premiership], that through the technical blueprint the SRU have put in place the players are very comfortable with the ball in hand playing at high pace. We are going to play along those lines and pick a side along those lines.
“You actually start from a really strong base because you start with a group of players that want to play that way, that buy into that philosophy, and have the skillset to deliver. It’s obvious that there are not huge rafts of numbers to pick from but it’s a good, strong, solid side.
“Now the challenge is to take them over a relatively short period and galvanise them into a winning formula. That is clearly a challenge, at age-grade level or Test level, but I have been impressed at the way the players have conducted themselves in the environment and I am really looking forward to Friday night to see how they perform.’
Even by Under-20s standards, this is a young side, with 12 of the 23 players in the match-day squad eligible to return next year. But there is also a fair bit of experience, with eight members of the squad having been involved last season.
One of the players who ticks both those boxes is captain and open-side flanker Connor Boyle, who left Stewarts-Melville School in the summer and currently plays for Watsonians in the Tennent’s Premiership. He will celebrate his 19th birthday three days before the team’s third match of this campaign against France, but has already played twice for the Under-20s against Ireland and Italy during last year’s Six Nations.
Meanwhile, blindside-flanker Kwagga Van Niekirk is South African born and raised but qualifies to wear the thistle through a Scottish grandfather.
“He came across pre-Christmas and played for the Under-19s against Wales on the back pitches at Murrayfield,” said Hogg. “He brings a point of difference because collision-wise we are very much a chop-and-jackal type of team, whereas Kwagga brings a physicality that’s different from our group, certainly in the back-row, because tends to carry and hit high as a lot of South Africans are prone to do. He’s a big powerful man at a young age and I think he brings a really good balance to our back-row and a point of difference to our forward pack.
Another player in the side with a less exotic name but perhaps a more intriguing club attachment is inside-centre Robbie McCallum, who plays for Spanish side Complutense Cisneros.
“He was at Loretto School and in or around the academy system but went across to Spain to play,” said Hogg, before explaining that he is far more concerned about what the player offers now that they are here, rather than anything that has gone before. “The beauty of where I have come from [i.e. from outside the Scottish system] is that it is not about looking at boys historically or over a period of time, but looking at the last three or four months and how they have performed and trained in the short term. This is the side that has impressed me over that short period.”
Significantly, all of the front-five had some sort of involvement in the Under-20s last year, which is encouraging because if they are ready to cope with the set-piece and tight-play then the attacking ambition out the back which Hogg refers to has a chance to flourish.
Scotland U20 team to face Italy U20 at Netherdale in the U20 Six Nations on Friday 1 February (kick-off 7.30pm): Ollie Smith (Ayr); Rory McMichael (Heriot’s), Cameron Anderson (Wasps), Robbie McCallum (Complutense Cisneros), Jack Blain (Heriot’s); Ross Thompson (Glasgow Hawks) VICE-CAPTAIN, Roan Frostwick (Currie Chieftains); Sam Grahamslaw (Leicester Tigers), Finlay Scott (Jed-Forest), Murphy Walker (Stirling County), Ewan Johnson (Racing 92), Charlie Jupp (Heriot’s), Kwagga Van Niekirk (Lions), Connor Boyle (Watsonians) CAPTAIN, Jack Mann (Edinburgh Accies). Subs: Euan Ashman (Sale Sharks), Andrew Nimmo (Glasgow Hawks), Euan McLaren (Ayr), Cameron Henderson (Stirling County), Ross Bundy (Stirling County), Kyle McGhie (Musselburgh), Nathan Chamberlain (Bristol Bears), Rufus McLean (Watsonians).