SCOTLAND under-20s coach, John Dalziel, clearly believes experience will be key if his team are going to register a first ever victory at this level over Australia in Tuesday’s World Rugby Under-20 Championship curtain-raiser at the AJ Bell Stadium in Manchester (kick-off time: 5.30pm).
The match day squad includes twelve players who took part in last year’s tournament, with nine of those players in the starting fifteen. The spine of the team consists of five individuals who have appeared in either the Guinness Pro 12 or the Aviva Premiership this season.
Zander Fagerson, who will anchor the scrum at tight-head prop, is a full Scotland internationalist and has played 33 times for Glasgow Warriors; captain Scott Cummings is also a member of the Warriors set-up and has played nine games for the Scotstoun men; Jamie Ritchie at number eight has sixteen matches for Edinburgh under his belt; stand-off Adam Hastings played twice for Bath against Worcester Warriors and Exeter Chiefs back in February; and full-back Blair Kinghorn has appeared seventeen times for Edinburgh this year.
While placing the bulk of his trust in tried and tested individuals is an entirely justified and sensible strategy for Dalziel, the coach has also shown that there is scope to reward outsiders who have come into the squad and made a big impression.
He has selected two uncapped players on the bench, with lock Alex Craig getting the nod after performing well in the team’s recent warm-up match against France, and Cameron Gray covering the back three on the back of his performances at training in recent weeks.
“We’ve gone for an experienced team, which we feel has the right blend to execute our game plan, as well as dealing with the threats Australia will pose. We’ve had a good look at their team and style of play, and we feel we have the ability to compete in all areas of the game,” said the coach.
The youngsters face another huge challenge four days later when they take on hosts England, but Kinghorn says there is no chance of anyone in the team holding anything back for that match.
“We’ve got quite a lot of the top people coming with us and I think that will help across the board in terms of recovery and so on, which means we can just go out and play,” he said.
In the not so distant past, Scottish teams set off for this tournament in damage limitation mode, but that is clearly not the viewpoint of this crop of players – who have happily embraced the challenge of winning at least two of their pool games, which would put them in the frame to compete in the first to fourth placed play-offs for the first time ever.
At 19-years-old, Kinghorn is perhaps too young to remember the bad old days (such as 2010 when the Scots were on the receiving end of a 58-13 pummelling by Australia and a 73-0 drubbing by South Africa, or 2012 when the Australian’s visited a 67-12 humiliation on a team containing the likes of Mark Bennett, Finn Russell and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne), but his youthful confidence should not be mistaken for misplaced arrogance.
Kinghorn came off the bench to play the last eighteen minutes of Scotland’s 68-10 hammering by New Zealand in last year’s tournament in Italy, so is fully aware of just how tough this competition can be.
But he will also take confidence from starting in the match two weeks later against Australia, when Scotland lost 31-21 but led at half-time and really did let an opportunity to register a first ever win at that level over the Wallabies slip through their fingers with some disastrous defending during the third quarter.
“This year is really exciting. Last year our strong point was definitely our forwards with big ball carriers like Magnus Bradbury, but I think we’ve got equally good backs as forwards now. We’ve got a really exciting backline across the board, so we are really looking forward to getting out there and showing our different dimensions of the game,” he explained.
“Like all southern hemisphere teams, they [Australia] will be physical, but they’ll also be fast and want to play the ball. They will chuck it around, go for the offloads, so it will be a looser sort of match – but we just need to go out there and match them physically. I think in the past we might have sat back against Australia and try to absorb them, but if we just go at them then we can match them because we’ve got a quality team.”
“We’ve got a leadership group within the squad and there’s experience there, so I think everyone has a number of people they can turn to.”
“We had a really great Six Nations, and now we have got everyone back – such as Zander Fagerson and Jamie Ritchie [who had only limited time with the age-grade set-up because of club and full international commitments]. Everyone has moulded together really well and it is a class team, so we’ll be the ones to watch.”
Scotland under-20 team to play Australia under-20 in the World Rugby Under-20 Championship AJ Bell Stadium, Manchester (Kick-off 5.30pm)
15. Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh Rugby)
14. Darcy Graham (Hawick)
13. Rory Hutchinson (Northampton Saints)
12. Tom Galbraith (Melrose)
11. Ben Robbins (Currie)
10. Adam Hastings (Bath Rugby)
9. Hugh Fraser (Heriot’s)
1. Murray McCallum (Heriot’s)
2. Jake Kerr (Boroughmuir)
3. Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors)
4. Andrew Davidson (Newcastle Falcons)
5. Scott Cummings CAPTAIN (Glasgow Warriors)
6. Lewis Wynne (Stirling County)
7. Matt Smith (Glasgow Hawks)
8. Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh Rugby)
16. Lewis Anderson (Ayr)
17. Dan Elkington (Melrose)
18. Callum Sheldon (Leeds Beckett University)
19. Alex Craig (Gloucester)
20. Ally Miller (Melrose)
21. Charlie Shiel (Currie)
22. George Taylor (Melrose)
23. Cameron Gray (Currie)