THE sun set on a miserable men’s Six Nations window for Scotland with the under-20s slumping to a painful 59-5 loss to Ireland on Sunday evening, and head coach Kenny Murray admitted that he was disappointed but not particularly surprised by how the campaign had unfolded for his team.
The age-grade side have now suffered back-to-back championship whitewashes. At least they managed to pick up a solitary bonus-point this season for scoring four tries against England in round one, which is progress of sorts – if you are an incurable optimist.
The plight of the under-20s should be a bigger cause for concern than the senior team’s recent tribulations. At least Gregor Townsend’s side managed to be vaguely competitive throughout their Six Nations campaign and most of their problems are cultural so more easily fixed if the key personnel are prepared to grasp the nettle.
The problems at under-20s level are far more deep-rooted than that, with implications which directly link to the long-term sustainability of the sport in this country. This Scotland team was thrown to the wolves. They fought bravely for survival in each of their five outings before eventually being swallowed up by bigger, stronger and better-prepared opposition. Their average losing margin was 22 points per game.
No blame for this can apportioned to the players, they have been badly let down by a system which doesn’t produce enough individuals with the ability and experience to compete at this level. It is not the case that they weren’t good enough, rather they weren’t given the chance to be good enough.
Former Glasgow Warriors defence coach Murray (who took charge of the under-20s as part of his new job title as Scottish Rugby’s ‘Head of Player Transition’ less than three weeks before the Six Nations started), broke with current Murrayfield orthodoxy by recognising the full grimness of the situation. But he also claimed that a number of quick fixes can be put in place to ensure immediate and meaningful improvements.
“To be honest with you, I expected it to be tough,” Murray admitted. “Looking back at the results in the summer down in Wales [in the delayed 2021 Six Nations], losing 43-3 to Italy highlights where we are.
“What’s happened with Covid has not been great for us during the last year and a half, and I think some of what we’ve seen is an outcome of that,” he continued. “But there is a whole host of areas we’ve got to get better.
“We need to look at our talent identification and making sure that we get every player available to us who can be available to us, and we need to look at our competition programme to ensure that players coming into the Under-20s are playing as much as they can in a competition which is a good intensity, so that means Super6.
“Players’ conditioning is a big thing. Some players out there tonight [against Ireland], I don’t think were conditioned to play at that level. Physically, we were completely out-muscled in the ball-carry and collisions, so we’ve got a lot of work to do in terms of improving that 20s programme and the players in it.”
The next rugby step for the home-based players in the squad is kick-off of the 2022 Super6 ‘Sprint’ series on 16th April. The 30-man squad named at the start of this Six Nations contained just 17 players located inside Scotland, and six of that number were not attached to a Super6 club. It gets worse because of the 11 Super6 players in the squad, only captain Rhys Tait, centre Duncan Munn, prop Mikey Jones and stand-off Christian Townsend got anything remotely close to meaningful game time in the part-time professional league which was set-up explicitly to act as a development tool for players with aspirations of reaching the pro game.
If Super6 doesn’t provide players like Gregor Scougall (who started at tight-head prop in all five matches having played for Currie Chieftains in the Premiership this season), Rudi Brown (who was farmed out to Hawick in the Premiership to get match-minutes after various factors including injury and restrictions on moving between Covid bubbles meant he had not played at all for Watsonians in Super6) and Andy Stirrat (who plays for Premiership side GHA and was identified by Murray as the team’s best player over the course of the campaign) with regular game-time, then you have to ask whether the league’s existence is justified? Murray promised that this issue is in hand.
“It is about partnership working,” he said. “There have already been discussions with the Super6 guys [coaches] and they know that it is there as a tool to develop the performance pathway in Scottish rugby by providing the link between the club game and the pro game and that the under-20s need to be an integral part of that.
“Part of my role is to work with the Super6 coaches and make sure that we are on top of that and making sure guys are getting games. The only way they are going to get better is to play better games. For a lot of the guys in the programme, this will be the hardest rugby they have ever played, so there is a lot of work to do.”
This is not a new problem. There have been occasional highs but it is far more often a struggle for Scotland at this level. In the last five years, Scotland finished second in the table once in 2020 (although England and France would have both overtaken them if they had played and won their abandoned final match), fifth once, and last three times. Their average finishing position in World Rugby’s Under-20 Championship since its inception in 2008 is 9.25.
After finishing bottom of the World Championship in the summer of 2019, Scotland were relegated to the second-tier ‘Trophy’ competition where they were due to play against sides like Spain, Uruguay and Hong Kong before Covid wiped out the 2020 tournament. They have still not had a chance to secure promotion back to the top table, and it is not going to happen this summer because on-going Covid concerns have kept both the Trophy and the Championship in lockdown. However, there will be some more age-grade rugby for this group after the Super6 ‘Sprint’ series is finished.
“We’re looking at an event which is going to be organised involving the Six Nations teams and maybe another team. I think it was going to be in Georgia but they are now looking at moving that to one of the Six Nations country,” explained Murray, who added that he expects his team to be better equipped to compete by that point.
“We’ve been missing a few guys through injury like [loose-head prop] Tom Banatvala, who played really well against England, Alex Samuel, who is a big lock in the Glasgow Academy but hasn’t been involved all programme, and Ollie Leatherbarrow, who was one of our best performers at the start of the campaign in the back-row. We don’t have enough depth in our programme that we can lose those guys and still compete, so hopefully we’ll get those guys back in the summer and we’ll also look to bring through a few younger guys ahead of next year.”
Beyond that, a more strategic approach to growing the game needs to be developed, which doesn’t just mean more kids getting introduced to rugby but also more opportunities for ambitious youngsters to play at a higher level. That requires meaningful investment [remember that £20m government funding package?], some tough decisions to be made about where money should be directed, and some bashing of heads to get schools and youth/club branches of the game better aligned.
The Offside Line is working on a deep dive into Scottish youth rugby and what needs to happen next. Watch this space.