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 14 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.
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.