JIM MALLINDER – Scottish Rugby’s performance director – has assured national under-20s head coach Kenny Murray that his job is safe despite this afternoon’s deeply damaging defeat to Uruguay, and he insisted that he remains confident that his overhaul of Murrayfield’s performance department 18 months ago was the first step of a journey in the right direction, despite a devastating sequence of results for the age-grade side.
The under-20s have managed just three victories from 22 matches stretching back to the start of 2020, with two of those wins being over minnows Zimbabwe and USA during the current Junior World Trophy campaign. Today’s loss means that they won’t win promotion back to the top tier Junior World Championship next year, which is a major setback given the value that competition has provided in terms of player development opportunities over the years. Earlier this year, Scotland lost 82-7 to Ireland, which is a harrowing indicator of the gulf in class which has been allowed to develop.
“Kenny is doing a good job” insisted Mallinder. “He’s getting that team better. He’s put in some great preparation. The squad are improving but if you look at the game-time of these youngsters, they’ve not played enough.
“I’ve been through it this week with our statistician and only about five or six are playing nearly every week. How can we have one of our starting players who has only played 80 minutes of rugby in the last three or four months? No wonder we’re getting 12 injuries, we’re not playing the quality and quantity of rugby, not exposing them to the right levels.”
“I’m confident in Kenny and the coaching team,” he added. “We need to support him and make these changes. I’m so frustrated. I want us to improve, we’re not going to do it overnight but we can improve.”
Mallinder was echoing the point Murray had made earlier in the day about Scotland under-20s players not getting enough game-time exposure at an appropriate level, which is hard to fathom given that they work for Scottish Rugby, who own both the nation’s pro teams and are major investors in the six Super Series sides which were awarded licenses back in May 2018 with the specific remit of providing a stepping-stone for the nation’s best up-and-coming players as they move from schools and club rugby towards the professional game.
“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. “This is why we are taking the bull by the horns and putting our under-20 team 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 under-20s team in Super Series is called the ‘FOSROC Future XV’ and will play its first game on Friday evening against Southern Knights at the Greenyards, although the current Scotland Under-20s squad won’t be involved because they will still be in Kenya preparing for their Junior World Trophy 3rd/4th place play-off against Samoa on Sunday.
An obvious question is: if under-20s players can’t demand selection into existing Super Series teams on merit, what chance are they going to have when thrown in together as one team against these same older and more experienced sides which they have not previously made the cut for?
“If they can’t compete at Super6 level, how do we expect them to compete against France or Ireland who are playing competitively already?” retorted Mallinder, which sounds more like blind hope thank confidence that this latest scheme will have the desired effect.
“We come up against teams who are already a couple of years in advance of us. Look at the number of those French players who are playing in their top division, it’s frightening. The Irish and French lads are getting opportunities so when they come to play for the 20s, they are light years ahead of us,” he added.
The proof will, of course, be in the pudding. In the meantime, questions are also being asked about the pro teams’ recruitment and selection policies, with three of the most impressive Scotland Under-20s back-rowers of recent seasons – Rhys Tait, Archie Smeaton and Harri Morris (who is converting to hooker) – all heading south to play in the English Championship with Doncaster Knights next season, while Rudi Brown is off to France. At the same time, Glasgow Warriors have added depth to their squad in that position with the signing of veteran South African journeyman Henco Venter.
“We want success at Edinburgh and Glasgow, we want to be supportive of those pro teams because we want them to do well, but we’ve also got to encourage our youngsters,” said Mallinder. “Another area we are going to be focusing on is the transition player, this area between 20 and 23. We’re going to spend more resource on looking after them, come up with a season plan for these players. At the moment, they don’t get enough game time. We need to get those players regular game time, in the Super Series but also playing as a transition group.
“What we don’t do here is point fingers,” Mallinder added. “We look at what’s happening and we understand that this has been a problem, with our under-20s, under-18s and our pathway, for a number of years. There is certainly no easy overnight fix, but we’ve already set some plans in place to hopefully improve this situation so we can provide more players to the professional teams and ultimately the national team. We’re going to have to work at this plan and really start improving.
“It’s going to take time. With the physicality, we’re not there [and] not just when we compete against Six Nations teams but [also against] some of these other emerging countries such as Uruguay and Georgia.
“It’s not these players’ fault. We had a young fly-half [Andy McLean] against Uruguay who has been playing at full-back for his Premiership club. It’s a really difficult ask. When our top player, Richie Simpson, is unavailable, we haven’t got the strength in depth and quality of player to be regularly competing against other international teams.
“I’m not going to get away from this being a big disappointment. We need to improve. We’ve seen that over the last couple of years – we’ve not been good enough. We’ve got to start afresh; we can’t keep doing the same things or we will just get worse.
“I feel so sorry for Kenny because he’s such a good coach. We’ve had about 12 of our best players unavailable to play in this tournament because of injuries. We’re not using that as an excuse because we know where we are at. We are short of quality players – we need to give them better game time and improve their physicality.
“We are in a low position, really disappointed. I’ve just been in that dinner hall and there was silence from those lads. They didn’t play particularly well, some of our decision-making was really, really bad and we can get a lot better. That’s a poor performance. We understand where we are at, and that’s why we are making these changes to the structure, not changes to the coaches.”