SCOTLAND UNDER-20S head coach Sean Lineen has told his players that they must hit the ground running in their Six Nations opener against Ireland in Cork tomorrow [Friday] night, because it is no longer good enough to use games such as this as a development opportunity where the result is almost incidental.
“We can’t use that as an excuse anymore, we want to put a real statement down,” he stated .“It is all about being competitive and putting our best foot forward every game. I want these guys to be pros – that is the aim of the Under-20s, to take them to the next level like Jamie Ritchie, Matt Fagerson, Darcy Graham, Adam Hastings and all these guys.
“In the Six Nations, we want to do well. We’re not just using it as a stepping-stone, we want to do well and get a little bit of confidence, and there is no better way to start than against Ireland.”
The Under-20s programme has tended to be viewed as a slow-burner for Scotland in recent years, with the Six Nations treated as an opportunity to give players who have not previously had much exposure to ‘performance’ rugby a chance to find their feet ahead of the real priority of doing well in the Junior World Championship in the summer.
However, that carrot of playing against the top nations in the world at the end of the season is not there this year after Scotland finished dead last in last year’s tournament, which meant relegation to the second-tier World Rugby U20 Trophy where they will play against the likes of host nation Spain, Hong Kong and Uruguay instead.
While that relegation was a big blow for last year’s team, the flip side is that the squad was heavily populated by under-19s players meaning quite a few now have a chance to put things right. This is the age-group which won the U18 Six Nations Festival two seasons ago, do there is a fair bit of pedigree there.
Old heads on young shoulders
“There are 12 [players returning] from last year, so there is a lot of pride at stake for them just now and then heading into the Junior World Trophy in September, which we want to win to get back into the World Championship,” said Lineen.
“These guys have won games for Scotland before. A lot of them have beaten Ireland, England and France at under-18 level and we have put across to them that expectations are high. Ireland are a good side and that will give us a great measure of where we are at.”
Rory Darge has been named as captain of the side. He missed out on the Under-20s last season because of a knee injury but has experience at this level from the year before when he played nine games despite still being in the under-18s age-bracket at that time.
“He’s an impressive young man who has had a few injuries in the past so for him to come through that adversity is great and he is held in high regard by the group,” said Lineen.
Darge has come through the ranks as an out-and-out openside but is being deployed as a No 8 against Ireland this weekend in order to accommodate last year’s captain Connor Boyle.
“Connor did a good job as captain and he is a really determined and dedicated man, but now he can concentrate on his own game whilst still being a massive leader in support of Rory,” said Lineen. “They are very similar in terms of being really reliable in what they do on the pitch and really determined. They have battled against each other all the way through the age-grades, so I’m saying to them: ‘Don’t battle against each other, battle together’.
“Having two guys like that on the field makes a big difference, full of energy and full of that will and desire to win. Their attitude is first class in the way they go about their own business and also challenge the other players as well – they don’t accept being in second or third gear, they want full-throttle right through the campaign. It is good having competitive animals like that.
Sharing the load
“We’ve got a pretty good support group around Rory as captain,” Lineen added. “There’s a lot of leadership with guys who have been there before, like Ewan Ashman and Connor in the forwards, and Robbie McCallum and Ollie Smith in the backs. I’m really excited with what the guys have done since coming together.”
There are a few players in the squad who have not had much game time at any level recently, either through injury or non-selection for Super6 teams. For example, Rufus McLean will make his first competitive appearance in several months off the bench, after coming back from a long-term groin issue. However, Lineen believes the groundwork has been put in place through a series of warm-up hit-outs against Watsonians, Ayrshire Bulls and the Scotland Club XV to ensure that the team is ready to go against Ireland
“You are never going to get 23 superstars at this level but what we now have is 23 guys who are committed, well-conditioned and a bit more used to the rigours of this type of rugby,” he concluded. “It will be a physical battle in Ireland, but I am expecting big things from this group.”
Scotland U20s (v Ireland on Friday, at Independent Park, Cork, kick-off 7:30pm): Ollie Smith (Ayrshire Bulls); Jacob Henry (Southern Knights), Matthew Currie (Watsonians Rugby), Robbie McCallum (Boroughmuir Bears), Jack Blain (Heriot’s Rugby); Nathan Chamberlain (Hartpury College/Bristol Bears), Roan Frostwick (Watsonians Rugby); Alex Maxwell (Stourbridge), Ewan Ashman (Sale Sharks), Dan Gamble (Heriot’s Rugby), Kieran Watt (Watsonians Rugby), Cameron Henderson (Stirling County), Jack Hill (Durham University), Connor Boyle (Watsonians Rugby), Rory Darge (Southern Knights)©. Subs: Rory Jackson (Watsonians Rugby), Mak Wilson (Southern Knights), Thomas Lambert (Sydney University), Jamie Campbell (Biggar), Gregor Brown (Boroughmuir Bears), Kyle McGhie (Boroughmuir Bears), Cameron Scott (Boroughmuir Bears), Rufus McLean (Boroughmuir Bears).