Opinion: changes needed if Scotland under-20s are to rise again

Alan Lorimer believes that a better strategy needs to be in place for Scotland under-20s

Scotland Under-20s have endured a torrid couple of years. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Scotland Under-20s have endured a torrid couple of years. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

IN just over six months time, Scotland will play their first game in the 2023 Six Nations under-20 championship and after a dispiriting run of fourteen defeats on the bounce, the hope is that this time round the young Scots will be better prepared to face the annual springtime test and later in the year the challenge of the second tier World under-20 Trophy.

One reason that the Scotland under-20 side that competed in the inaugural Six Nations Summer Season tournament in Italy last month seemed to be so far off the pace compared to their opponents was that many of the squad had not been given enough game time during the Super6 season. In simple terms, they were under-cooked.

It’s encouraging, therefore, to learn that the idea of entering a full under-20 side in Super6 competition has been mooted. If this materialises then what it will offer potential Scotland under-20 players is full involvement in Super6 rather than, as happened this past season in some clubs, spending most of their time training or sitting on the bench, or worse, not being part of match-day squads.


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Having a potential Scotland under-20 squad playing together at a relatively high level throughout chunks of the season would certainly ensure the cream of the nation’s youngsters being far more ready for the fray. And, one might ask, why not the option of forming more than one under-20 squad for Super6?

While on the subject of Super6, which was introduced as the interface between the top level of the amateur game and professional rugby, would it not be better in general if the competition were pitched at a lower age, say under-25?

At the elite level, a dedicated under-20 Super6 team would certainly make for a better transition from under-18 rugby, which, in contrast to the under-20 stratum, looks to be in much better shape. But while this would improve on the current situation this alone would be insufficient.

What is needed in the jump from schools and youth levels to the pinnacle of age-grade competition is a restoration of representative rugby at under-19, a middle step that would place Scotland on a similar footing to other nations. In past years, Scotland have had under-19 fixtures against the likes of Australia Schools, Japan Schools, Italy and France: fortunately the re-introduction of this level, after an absence of three years, is firmly on Murrayfield’s agenda.

The carrot of under-19 rugby should help youngsters graduating from the under-18 game to stay in the sport. Too often 18-year-olds are in a comfort zone in youth rugby and view the prospect of adult rugby with some trepidation. One reason for this is simply that some youngsters are simply too old for under-18 rugby (the same is true at under-16 level) as a result of the eligibility criterion for domestic schools and youth rugby being out of sync with international regulations

Here in Scotland, in both schools and club youth rugby, we deem ‘under-18’ to mean ‘under-18 on 1st September’ whereas everywhere else and notably at international level it is ‘under-18 on 1st January’ – a significant difference of four months. While the September cut-off point may suit some schools who adopt the English entry system, for the majority of Scottish schools the 1st January limit, chimes much more with their pupils’ age profiles.

If the age regulations were to be changed in Scotland to harmonise with international requirements then it might behove Murrayfield to make arrangements for the relatively few players whose 18th birthdays occur between 1st September and 1st January. A meaningful under-19 competition could be set up on a regional basis or alternatively those players in the above category could simply play senior rugby for clubs, a collateral advantage being the establishment of a link between club and school at an earlier stage.

 

Whether or not a dedicated Super6 team is established to prepare likely Scotland under-20 players, there remains the more traditional route of playing for your local club. However, the evidence of this choice seems to result in players being bypassed for age-grade selection, when the common sense view is that playing regularly for a Premiership club may be so much better than being a fringe player in a Super6 squad.

Young players who stand out in the Premiership or even National League One should come into consideration for selection; for these are players likely to be late developers, often overlooked for the elite pathway ladder at earlier stages in their careers.

Looking at Scotland’s opponents in international under-20 rugby, it is  apparent that all their players are attached to pro clubs. Which means at best they will have professional playing experience and and at least will have trained regularly in a professional environment. Surely we should replicate this approach here in Scotland?

Whatever means are deployed to prepare youngsters for under-20 international competition, the key to it all is playing regularly at a high enough level to enable them to step up to the standards being achieved by the likes of Italy and Georgia

Of course, all the above presupposes that there is a robust schools and youth programme in place to produce sufficient numbers year on year. The evidence on the ground, however,  suggests that the age-grade game is not in rude health and crucially that numbers are diminishing.

Just how this trend can be arrested and numbers begin to increase in Scotland must remain, however,  a topic of discussion for another day.


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About Alan Lorimer 239 Articles
Scotland rugby correspondent for The Times for six years and subsequently contributed to Sunday Times, Daily and Sunday Telegraph, Scotsman, Herald, Scotland on Sunday, Sunday Herald and Reuters. Worked in Radio for BBC. Alan is Scottish rugby journalism's leading voice when it comes to youth and schools rugby.

28 Comments

  1. Dom

    Good observations .

    We need to find a way of getting top state schools
    playing top private schools to increase the pool of good
    young players getting maximum competitive exposure.

    We need to allow young players to play for their schools and clubs at weekends to increase their competitive exposure especially in their late teens .

    Ironically we also lose good private school players as the schools don’t have a local club allegiance and so they give up after school !

    What to do ?

  2. One of my big bugbears with youth rugby is our inability to capture more kids playing our sport.

    This piece from yesterday’s Guardian on the 2012 olympics is fascinating

    https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2022/jul/22/london-2012-10-years-on-wrestling-with-a-sporting-legacy-built-on-false-assumptions

    37% of make rugby internationals are from private schools. As they only account for about 7% of all pupils that’s a real concern.

    “There is something more harmful here than simply puff and spin, the danger that sport in the legacy era becomes just another aspirational industry that favours the pre-privileged.

    At Tokyo 2020 35% of British medal winners were privately educated at some stage in their secondary schooling. Take out boxing and BMX, which were entirely state school, and almost half of Team GB’s medal winners came from the 7% of the population who attend private schools.

    That inequality is on the rise, up from 32% at Rio 2016. It also reflects British sport generally. A 2019 Sutton Trust report found that most British sports are split disproportionately along these lines. Almost half of national schools competitions are won by independent schools. Forty-three percent of men and 35% of women playing international cricket for England went to private school, and 37% of male British rugby union internationals.“

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    • I agree with this bee in your bonnet. How to fix it, well not sure anyone has a clue TBH. As the article points out, its not just rugby either, its a much much wider problem
      One slight bit of “mitigation” is that not all rugby internationalists for Scotland who will be listed as privately educated started out that way. Good few were offered scholarships for their final year(s). If parents a pupil want to do this its hard to criticise them. But it does give us the self perpetuating system and reinforce private schools being the top school teams

      • Wasn’t it Keith Russell who was attempting to get more State schools playing Rugby? If my memory of that is correct who has taken over that role since his unfair dismissal and with what success?

      • George, Russell was treated abysmally

        But everyone one before him and since has tried. And failed.
        The the article Dom quotes from is very clear, its not just rugby, far from it. Funnily enough the SRU isn’t responsible for cricket, athletics etc in Scotland never mind elsewhere in the UK.

        In rugby in Scotland (and elsewhere) the difficulty is getting worse every day – just read the terrible stories about concussion and MND related to rugby. Parents are getting less likely to let their kids play rugby, even those who played themselves

      • Agree S+9 about Russell, as regards parental reluctance it isn’t helped by lets be honest a society that has become over cautious about anything aided by Media being the main harbingers of doom and gloom. Although it isn’t a popular view I dare say there were people suffering problems from concussion and other related matters long before the amateur days were over it was just that there weren’t carpet bagging lawyers in the wings waiting for a Brief and Refreshers and Media desperate to fill 24 hours news and it is still a very small percentage of players that may or may not have a problem directly responsible from playing Rugby.

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      • George – the reason concussion and ECT is only now emerging as a significant concern is because it is affecting the first generations of retired professional players in their 30s/40s/50s.

        The professional game has involved increasingly fitter, faster and more powerful players involved in a game that emphasises ball in play time and has seen the ruck transformed into a new more dangerous set piece. As a result there are many more collisions whether tackles, rucks involving a great deal more player. Compared to the 80s players play vastly more games per season.

        So no, this isn’t media scare-mongering. Professional rugby has inadvertently created a vastly more dangerous game to players’ long term health. Who wants their child to fulfil their dream of being a professional player and then turn out like Ryan Jones, struggling with dementia as a young father with no quality of life to look forward to?

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  3. I like the idea of the u20 super 6 team, perhaps this team could be given additional funding so all the players could be full time to help bridge the potential gap in experience and physicality with the other super 6 teams. I would also like to see an established coaching team rather than the u20s being used to develop coaches supported by a team of strength & conditioning coaches, analysts & sport psychologists to create a set up similar to the pro teams. This might cost significantly more money than is currently available to the super 6 but investing in these players at a younger age should help the transition to the pro teams and when the players that don’t get pro contracts transition to other super 6 teams they will have had 2 years of playing/ training in a professional environment and hopefully raise the standards of the other teams. There are examples like the argentina super rugby team or Japan prior to the last World Cup that shows the advantage of a international team spending a significant amount of time playing and trying together.

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  4. Some good ideas. However, which super 6 team would be sacrificed to make way for an U20 team?
    Or do you add another team, Glasgow based perhaps, and make it super 8?
    Super 8 has a catchier ring to it, although there would be more games to accommodate.
    Will any change happen? Sadly, I doubt it.

  5. Absolutely correct that as long as youth rugby is dominated by the bought and paid for success of overage much more coaches East coast private school boys who then in vast swathes decline the pathway route when the going gets tough that we will see decline. Our lack of blue collar Rugby pipeline is the issue. We will be behind not jus Georgia, Italy and Argentina but Spain & Portugal soon. Make all age grade rugby Jan1 cut off every year youth and schools immediately.

  6. Some of these squads comprise of players picked at 13 / 14 years old who maybe stand out at that age but that’s as good as they get . But then they are in the system regardless what they do for years.I’ve seen plenty young players who start off at a young age just average but progress at a rate of knots but find there is no avenue to higher things because of the dead wood that’s not jettisoned .
    There is too much emphasis on where you come from / who you’re related to that has gone on for years and still does .just look at selection .
    Get these age group players playing in Premiership teams week on week out against grizzly experienced players . they will learn the ropes quickly rather than not playing any rugby in Dodson folly S/six.
    Why he did away with original Premiership format only he will know.just look at the state of grass roots rugby in Scotland now .he couldnt care less .only interested in putting money in his bank account

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  7. I wonder if small adjustments to the season can make improve the development pathway all round.
    What about if Super 6 had a dedicated Summer season of 12 weeks – July, August and September. Each squad MUST have 10 players in their 32 player squad who are Under 20 in age? So the best 60 Under 20’s – effectively 30 Under 20 and 30 Under 19 – are playing elite level through the Summer. Traditional club leagues – divisions of 10 clubs – don’t start until 1st weekend of October and have a dedicated season from October to March . Under 20s can play club rugby – maybe SRU manages total game time for season for elite 30 on Senior Academy contracts (full time) but others can decide how much and in what division they want to play. The national U20 squad would be chosen at start of January and go into camp in prep for 6 Nations in February and March (others can keep playing club rugby). April is holiday time for U20s – no games. holiday. strength & conditioning, exams (whatever is appropriate) then in May the Under 20’s reconvene for camp in preparation for World Trophy in June, while those not selected go straight into Super 6 training for the competition that starts as soon as World Trophy finishes at end of June. Under 20’s could be getting 10-12 games at Super 6, 10 games at International Under 20, and 10 club games a season (30 games).

    Club seasons runs October to March (with 7s tournaments in September and April to top and tale season) and club players have May to August off while Super 6 takes place.
    If a compromise can be made with the clubs, players playing Super 6 who are over 20, could perhaps be allowed to play a set number of games for their ‘clubs of origin’ in club season – either they can play 5 super 6 players per game; or super 6 players can play 12 games per season for their club, something like that.

    So we have an elite competition (super 6) and we have a strengthened club competition (easier flow between clubs and Super 6) and they don’t overlap.

    By the way I would have 30 Full time Under 20s in the Senior Academy (15 Under 20’s and 15 Under 19’s roughly) and I would have 30 at Under 18, 30 at Under 17, and 30 at Under 16 in regional academies (enhanced coaching/s&c). Players no longer aged for U20 should be on full contracts or Super 6 contracts – not Academy contracts.

    • There are 26 weeks from 1 Oct to 30 March

      Take 2 weeks off for Xmas and New Year
      3 Saturdays for Autumn tests
      5 weekends are required for 6 Nations. It just so happens that we have 2 Sunday games next season.

      That’s 16 weeks left

      A ten team league has 18 games. How does 18 fit into 16 weeks?

      And that’s before any weather related postponements.

      • Great response JW.

        We currently start last weekend in Aug to the 20th approx of May. My reply to MB was to his specific suggestion of moving the club season to Oct- March.

    • A very well thought out proposal Moody Blue! The key to that and the success in general of Super 6 is getting that fluidity between pro teams and their academies, super 6 teams and then the club game. We are not exactly overflowing with player numbers so we should be doing what we can to make it easy for players and clubs to get games at the best level possible but not being stopped from playing back down a level of that makes sense (work/returning from injury/any other reason).
      The calendar you suggest does make a lot of sense but I’m not sure if 10 games plus a couple of play offs is going to be enough to sustain the Super 6 concept and full time coaches etc. Cross border stuff seems unlikely any time soon so it’ll either be via a sprint series or a replica spring time comp. Ideally they could get to 8 sides ASAP and then you’d get to 14 games. More than 8 would be better but they’ll want to try and keep standards up so not spreading the players out too much.

      • I’m afraid semi-pro’s playing down would make a mockery of prem and Nat 1. Clubs parachuting players in for key games. Also the SRU ethos for Scottish Rugby ( as sold to clubs) was pro’s playing against pro’s – semi- pros against semi- pro’s and amateur against amateurs.
        They have conveniently forgotten that the Prem was to be amateur by now.

    • Some good ideas but I suspect the lure of winning would leave the U20s as bench fodder at best.
      At present I don’t believe the SRU has any idea how to fix this particular problem. Having invested so much in Super 6 they cannot back down on that so my fear is that they tinker with it to use it to also solve the U20 pathway issue.

    • Great plan Moodie Blue but way too sensible for the SRU to implement. Purely from a personal point of view I reckon Scottish rugby has been playing catch up since the professional era arrived and not succeeding, sadly. Occasionally have a couple of good results and that papers over the cracks but unfortunately no upward development from there.

  8. Having a strategy full stop would be a great idea.

    I’m at a loss to understand how Murrayfield taking over more control of the player pathway is going to help. They’ve done a terrible job so far.

    One of the solutions is so simple. Get them playing club rugby and stop this ridiculous non selection of those players in U20 teams.

    An U20 super team may be interesting but will take quite some time to establish itself and start producing results. I’m unconvinced that they will be able to compete with adult players who have been around the block. Yes it’s possibly better than the paltry playing opportunities the U20’s are getting at the moment but that’s more damning of the current system.

    But nice of Scottish Rugby to chuck even more money into the Super set up. How much will be enough for this event?

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  9. Very good article raising certain questions
    Who would replace the u20s in the Super6
    Squads ? Non SQP mercenaries or older players
    unlikely to progress to Pro level ?
    Would the clubs see a further exodus of young players
    who might be the future of the clubs ? A danger
    of weakening the Premiership and National1 ?

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  10. The new Super 6 team sounds like an idea. Our boys always seem so wee when compared to same-age opposition. Even a part-time contract will surely allow them more time to concentrate on that aspect (along with the rugby stuff too!).

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    • Agree with your comments. Clearly something has to change. If our U 20 players are not developed properly new talent will not feed through to the pro teams and then on to the International side. No change would be a recipe for disaster. The performances this spring of the U 18 side indicates there is talent, so it is down to the SRU to produce a system that will address this issue.r t

  11. Rugby at school level to U20 is a shambles in Scotland. The SRU have inly themselves to blame. They only have to look at the results to see their so called strategies are not working. It’s still treated like an old boys club, who knows who rather than who is capable of what. Too few opportunities for the young team. A good marker would be to find out how many of the players in the senior national team have actually come through the ranks? I think you’ll find it’s very few. Maybe if the money spent on board members salaries was invested better, the result may be very different.

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  12. Good article and spot on about u20 side or sides in the super 6. I did see in the article about the English education system which means we’re still probably looking at elite schools again. Many state schools have all weather small & large pitches which could easily have boy/girl 7s at little expense. If only the SRU would put the old school ties away!

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  13. Alan Lorimaer, I hope you sent your proposals to the SRU . Very good proposals but will they listen, I doubt it .

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  14. Forget super6 its a waste of time for U20s development. There are better U20s out there playing great rugby in the premiership and Nat1 than the ones selected who were woefully unprepared for the physicality of U20s rugby. Those boys were essentially bludgeoned into a thrashing. Looking at the top rugby nations physicality comes first. Pick from the Academies and club that have players up to the task who play against men week in week out. Pick players who will front up and enjoy the battle. Win or lose we all want a team who will compete not the embarrassing displays of the last two tournaments.
    Its not the lad’s fault they were simply not strong enough, it was the selection process that let us down.

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  15. Youth and schools participation must be improved – time for Murrayfield to tell us they were wrong with their “fewer, but stronger” stratergy – I’m not expecting such an admission and I’m pretty sure that improving participation numbers will take a whilst and require significant effort.

    However, ensuring Under 20s get game time at Super 6 level is an easy fix – Murrayfield control the competition (and therefore can introduce a minimum criteria), whilst they also have a saying in the running of each franchise.

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