Opinion: success is cyclical for Scotland at Under-20s level but there is always room for improvement

14 successive defeats is a depressing statistic but does it mean a bleak future at this age level? Alan Lorimer considers the ramifications of this season’s results.

Scotland Under-20s did well to stay positive during tough 'Summer Series' campaign in Italy. Image: ©INPHO/Ben Brady
Scotland Under-20s did well to stay positive during tough 'Summer Series' campaign in Italy. Image: ©INPHO/Ben Brady

YOU would have to be devoid of any emotion not to feel somewhat depressed at the recent results of the Scotland under-20 squad, a four match whitewash in the inaugural Six Nations Summer Series, which taken together with the Six Nations Championship, has left the young Scots with a disheartening record of zero victories from nine international challenges this year. 

The results immediately beg the question: is this the beginning of a downward slide to permanent status as a second tier under-20 nation or do they merely represent a cyclical blip to which countries with small playing numbers are statistically prone?

For those inclined to take the view that we Scots are all doomed in this stratum of age-grade rugby, the results of the Scotland under-18 squad at the Six Nations under-18 Festival hosted by France in April should offer an antidote to the current gloom and, indeed, offer hope for the future.


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Recall that back in the spring sunshine, at the French national rugby centre in Marcoussis near Paris, Scotland under-18s opened with a win over Italy and, in their third and final match, they came desperately close to defeating England. Their only real set-back was against a France side primed to perfection for their home tournament, when a poor first half cost the Scots dearly, albeit slightly offset by winning the second period.

It might be stating the obvious but this year’s under-18s will be next season’s under-20s, or at least some of them will, and if they can progress to the next level then there his hope. Actually, this season’s under-20 squad for Italy did contain two under-18 players in back-row Liam McConnell and winger Kerr Johnston, and there could have been more.

Scotland’s history in under-20 competition has always been something of a rollercoaster. Two years before the current barren period, the 2020 Six Nations u20 Championship had brought optimism after away wins over Italy and Wales (the latter a record 52-17 victory) and close defeats to perennial powerhouses in age-grade rugby, England and France.

Later in 2020, the Scots were scheduled to play in the second tier World Rugby Trophy competition and given a cast that included Rory Darge, Ewan Ashman, Connor Boyle, Dan Gamble, Cameron Henderson, amongst the forwards, and Nathan Chamberlain, Matthew Currie, Jack Blain, Robbie McCallum, Rufus McLean and Ollie Smith in the backline, Scotland would have had strong chance of finishing first in the Trophy event and thereby reclaiming their place in the top World Junior Championship from which the Scots were relegated following a 12th place in the 2019 iteration.  But alas Covid put paid to the 2020 Trophy competition going ahead and it will not be until next year that Scotland can attempt to regain their Championship status.

In the top tier Junior World Championship, Scotland have most often finished 10th of 12, but from 2015-2017 the Scots hit a purple patch, twice finishing eighth before peaking with a fifth overall placing. Success in the World Junior Champs has always been determined by the number of players from both fifteens and sevens rugby who have experienced pro rugby or who are capable of stepping up to that level. What it really boils down to is having a critical mass of such players that form a core group able to inspire their less experienced cohorts.

And in 2017 this was certainly true for Scotland who were able to use the strength and skills of forwards such as Alex Craig, Tom Dodd, Hamish Bain, Callum Hunter-Hill, Adam Nicol, Tom Gordon, Matt Fagerson and Luke Crosbie, and backs of the  calibre of exile Connor Eastgate (now playing for Watsonians in Super6 after a few years off the Scottish rugby radar), Darcy Graham, Josh Henderson, Blair Kinghorn, Stafford McDowall, Robbie Nairn and Charlie Shiel, the latter’s last minute try earning Scotland that highest ever fifth place finish.

It goes without saying that Scotland have never been as well resourced as, say, England, whose players all boast Premiership connections. Ireland too, fielding the products of their provincial academy system, look so much better equipped to take on global opponents while southern hemisphere sides are honed on the kind of high level competition that is simply not part of our rugby culture.

It’s also worth pointing out that other countries have not always fared well in the World Junior Championship. Back in 2011, Wales suffered a 92-0 defeat to New Zealand: it was a catastrophe at the time but Welsh rugby confronted the reasons for this result and acted positively. And even Ireland just avoided relegation after winning the 11th/12th play-off as recently as 2018, two years after finishing runners-up to England.

So what can be done to bring Scottish rugby up to the standards being set in age grade rugby not just by the global elite but by the likes of Italy, Georgia and, in case Scotland need reminding of the brilliance they showed in the 2019 World Junior Championship, Fiji, whose running skills and high tempo game called time on Scotland’s place in the top 12?  The search for answers is surely exercising the minds of those in Murrayfield charged with running the age-grade game but finding solutions will not be easy.


Six Nations U20 Summer Series: Scotland recover respectability after horror start versus Ireland

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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.

17 Comments

  1. All the Irish have done is built on the foundations they already had, which was a relatively inexpensive private school rugby goldfish bowl (especially in Dublin) and a couple of places like Limerick and Ulster where rugby is an everyman sport.

    We’ve got some very strong rugby schools but there are too few of them to ensure they all have regular tough fixtures and the Borders (the only bit of Scotland where rugby is taken really seriously!) seems to be a complete afterthought in pur structures.

  2. I was looking through the old squads, we finished last in 2011 with a team that contained 2 Lions in Hogg and Watson and an Olympic medalist in Bennett. When we finished 3rd in 2015 the squad contained Bradbury, Cummings, Z Fagerson, Ritchie, G Horne, Hutchinson, Kinghorn and Vellacott

    To be fair we have been on a downward spiral for a while, we got relegated from the top table to the world rugby u20 back in 2019 and havent had a chance to get promoted back in due to Covid. At least we didnt spit the dummy and get the rest of the 6 nations to walk out on hte competition like we did when we got relegated from the top table of the FIRA U20’s back in the day.

    I’ve not seen any of the games, but from what I have heard the majority of the issues are down to fitness and conditioning which is the one thing that should be easy to fix with hard work. The majority of these guys are all institute of sport, you have to wonder what they are spending all there time doing. We just dont prepare the u20’s properly.

    I was looking at the 2019 squad, Redpath was playing for England, Garbisi for Italy and Thompson for Scotland. Out of those 3 Thompson is actually the oldest (a year older than Garbisi, and 6 months older than Redpath) yet when anyone ever comments on him its he’s still a youngster and not ready for international rugby, yet Redpath is seen as first pick Scotland centre when fit, and Garbisi is an intergral part of the Italy team.

    We just to a crap job of developing players in Scotland. I actually think the Super 6 could be the answer but it needs a full season (ie 20 games) as you should be able to concentrate all your young talent from 18-25 into 6 squads, then they are playing a decent level with good coaches and getting them up to proper fitness levels so they are ready to step up to the pro teams

  3. Well wonders never cease!

    Admission from Mallinder that maybe some mistakes were made in the pathways.

    In todays Times

    “As a business, we looked to cut back in certain areas and some of our regional and under-17, under-18 and under-19 programmes were things we cut back on. Ultimately, we are suffering now in our under-20 age group.”

    Seriously? No one in Murrayfield foresaw an issue with this? And here was me thinking let the pros do their jobs.

    And the big idea! Let’s set up an U20 side in Super 6. Good grief.

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  4. Perhaps academy kids should be kept out of Super 6 squads and instead play in the Super 6 as A-teams for the pro-sides alongside fringe professionals. I’m the absence of a proper a-league perhaps this is a better half way house?

    I believe that in Irish system academy players train alongside the full provincial squad. Not sure if that is the case in Scotland but it could be if the set up was like this?

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    • There is an awful lot we could learn from the Irish, but we never seem to. Look at them and look at us – for we started at the sae point some 20 plus years ago. I would be sending someone over there for 12 months to really get under the skin and discover just how such a small rugby nation can develop to the point where it lands seriously big – and consistent – punches in both the European club and world international game. It’s enough to make you weep.

      • The Irish have some fundamentals that Scotland doesn’t have.

        A vast private school network in Leinster that produces ridiculous numbers of players. James Ryan was said to be pro ready at 18. Now we can’t create specimens like Ryan regularly but the number of young players Ireland produce gives them considerable advantages.

        Then there is the GAA. Again a vast Ireland wide resource with almost unlimited financial muscle. All played by amateurs! The cross over from Gaelic football into rugby is well known. My point here is that the numbers playing sport in Ireland far outstrip anything we are doing in Scotland and that include football.

        What can we learn from this? Get more kids playing more sport period. From this we need more people playing rugby. We have too small a pool to fish in. And yes we need to invest in specialist youth coaches. This is not a place to stick x pro aspiring coaches or guys who we don’t know what else to do with in the Murrayfield set up.

      • Italy hired Stephen Aboud in 2016, the Irish Rugby Football Union’s former development director who overhauled their youth system.

        He established a new academy system where around 120 of Italy’s most talented under-18 and under-19 players train at four national centers run by the Italian Rugby Federation (FIR) in Milan, Rome, Treviso and Prato which then feed their best to a single national academy for the under-20s. Remarkably the Milan centre is a residential programme based at a private school where players train Mon-Thur.

        The national academy is now being replaced with two academies for u20 and u21 based in the pro franchises to improve transition from the youth system to professional rugby.

        From what I understand Scotland has hired England’s development guru John Fletcher but it’s not clear to me what changes they are bringing in. We’re in a bit of an arms race now and I think we’re losing – give it five years and we could be in serious trouble.

  5. I’m not disputing the fact that the system needs to change, but this year in particular we are still dealing with the after effects of Covid and the Scottish reaction to it.

    Our players were effectively unable to play any competitive rugby for a long period of time, whilst other nations allowed competition much earlier, leading to better preparation.

    But that amplifies the reason why we need those who have just left school getting regular senior rugby. The clubs want to win super 6, therefore they are not giving youth enough of a chance, so perhaps it needs to be the premier clubs who are funded to allow, say, 10 u23 semi professionals to play and train with them.

    The best then move up when they are going to get game time, and the others continue to develop in a competitive environment.

    No easy answers though at all

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  6. What are realistic KPIs for the young player pipeline? Maybe that would help with them identifying what needs to change to achieve those goals?

    50% win ratio in U20 competitions
    Play at least 15 senior games per season
    % players into pro contracts
    % players with 10+ pro game time

    Doing the sane things and expecting different results isn’t working so radical change required in the performance pathway setup.

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  7. U20s not playing hard competitive rugby every week,S Sixes
    waste of time and money,go back too championship,districts
    rugby,incorporate as before youngsters into the first 15 and
    learn their trade week in week out,produced quality players for international rugby at all levels.

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  8. Looking at that list of players who featured in our purple patch, what is notable for me is actually how much talent we’ve wasted or hasn’t otherwise made it in the professional game.

    I think it is complacent to expect to stay ahead of Italy and Georgia in the future whilst they are producing competitive u20 teams and we aren’t. If both these more modestly resourced nations can sort out the u20 pathways then surely Scotland can?

    And if we can, the SRU must. Otherwise it is complacency that’ll set us up for a descent back to the wooden spoon territory and some people will call it cyclical rather than negligent. Let’s divert a few of the millions that are in the pro-teams, now more lavishly funded than their English rivals not to mention welsh or Italian, and use the investment to build from the base up.

    • If we divert money from the pro teams, won’t they become less competitive and therefore not deliver players who are up to standards at National level? Not to mention risk losing income from the packed out stadiums that has been so painstakingly hard to get to over the past decade due to fans losing interest in non-competitive teams.

      Not saying there does not need to be better funding and smarter thinking around competitive age-grade of course, but i’d suggest raising more money, rather than diverting.

      And perhaps a coach who knows what they are doing at U20 would go a surprisingly long way to bridging that cap between us and who we are losing to.

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      • You can divert money immediately, saying funding our professional pathways is reliant on raising more money just kicks the can down the road. We’re actually in a decent financial position considering covid and recently SRU have been talking about how well funded pro-teams are this year. Well I’m not sure that is best targeted at the moment for the future health of the Scottish game. We have big squads with a high number of external recruits – we can only hope to bring through more domestic developed players if we invest in those pathways.

      • Sorry but how many more excuses can be put out there for not performing in this tournament

        The system , the super 6 , a car crash , now the ref , individual errors

        From the outside looking in this is a squad that on paper was far better than last year however still massively and drastically under achieved , tactically not even at the races in this tournament , also the complete lack of confidence to let the players play heads up rugby and play what’s in front of them ,the boys that is boys !! Looked scared to leave the system and to be adventurous, the coaches refused to DROP certain players that seem to totally bullet proof yet the delivered very little indeed.

        Surely the coaches need to look in the mirror as well , as everyone seems to blame the system and Dodson , how was this Dodson’s fault , I doubt he hired the coaches .

        Having spoken to a couple of last season’s 20 both Sean L and shade M had checked out in Wales during the tournament I know shade and is a wonderful person however what experience has he and the 2 other coaches got in coaching boys developing into your men , this is specialist and needs people like Stewart Edwards or Ali Donaldson who have vast experience in working with both young men and also boys of 17/18 as well as senior teams , get one off theese chaps involved with current coaches so they can learn as well , education goes both ways

        The refusal to give players a chance and treat them like adults without remembering their age of these lads will come back to haunt them as I would imagine there are a few boys coming back from Italy questioning their desire for rugby

        The obsession of the coaches with the 2 under 18s who will learn from the experience and both did very well was at best bizarre ! and for ignoring other players including the South African lad brought over for the tour and Matt D who was a shoe in for the 6 nations and the lad brown( who has played for Edinburgh ) who is the same age as young l McConnell ,the treatment of young Redpath and the disregarding of big ross on the wing , the ex Merchi prop a sub being subbed after 25 minutes (really)you do wonder what conversations went on,

        I would get it .if the team was winning or playing well however the last 4 results say it all .

        Interesting rumours are that the Head coach is starting to tell clubs not in premiership to tell them that they will lose their Acadamy players as they need to be playing premiership or super 6

        Take young Kerr J a as example , gala born and bred with maroon blood running through him being told to leave , really is he ready for super 6 yet ? You would think staying and learning from a great coaching team for a year or 2 before moving on is better than NOT getting a game for a super 6 team , trust the people that know him and have developed him .

        This should be about development and working with the players all the players rather than the chosen few and do what is best for the player

        There is nothing wrong with admiting mistakes and learning from them after all this is about development of the Scottish players of the future

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      • Andy. That’s not a rumour. It’s a fact that academy players not in Premiership clubs are told to move and has been the case for several years.

      • Sorry but how many more excuses can be put out there for not performing in this tournament

        The system , the super 6 , a car crash , now the ref , individual errors

        From the outside looking in this is a squad that on paper was far better than last year however still massively and drastically under achieved , tactically not even at the races in this tournament , also the complete lack of confidence to let the players play heads up rugby and play what’s in front of them ,the boys that is boys !! Looked scared to leave the system and to be adventurous, the coaches refused to DROP certain players that seem to totally bullet proof yet the delivered very little indeed.

        Surely the coaches need to look in the mirror as well , as everyone seems to blame the system and Dodson , how was this Dodson’s fault , I doubt he hired the coaches .

        Having spoken to a couple of last season’s 20 both Sean L and shade M had checked out in Wales during the tournament I know shade and is a wonderful person however what experience has he and the 2 other coaches got in coaching boys developing into your men , this is specialist and needs people like Stewart Edwards or Ali Donaldson who have vast experience in working with both young men and also boys of 17/18 as well as senior teams , get one off theese chaps involved with current coaches so they can learn as well , education goes both ways

        The refusal to give players a chance and treat them like adults without remembering their age of these lads will come back to haunt them as I would imagine there are a few boys coming back from Italy questioning their desire for rugby

        The obsession of the coaches with the 2 under 18s who will learn from the experience and both did very well was at best bizarre ! and for ignoring other players including the South African lad brought over for the tour and Matt D who was a shoe in for the 6 nations and the lad brown( who has played for Edinburgh ) who is the same age as young l McConnell ,the treatment of young Redpath and the disregarding of big ross on the wing , the ex Merchi prop a sub being subbed after 25 minutes (really)you do wonder what conversations went on, sadly not just the boys mentioned as well

        I would get it .if the team was winning or playing well however the last 4 results say it all .

        Interesting rumours are that the Head coach is starting to tell clubs not in premiership to tell them that they will lose their Acadamy players as they need to be playing premiership or super 6

        Take young Kerr J a as example , gala born and bred with maroon blood running through him being told to leave , really is he ready for super 6 yet ? You would think staying and learning from a great coaching team for a year or 2 before moving on is better than NOT getting a game for a super 6 team , trust the people that know him and have developed him .

        This should be about development and working with the players all the players rather than the chosen few and do what is best for the player

        There is nothing wrong with admiting mistakes and learning from them after all this is about development of the Scottish players of the future

  9. It’s what Italy and Georgia are doing where the focus arguably needs to be on finding how to improve things. Italy because they’ve also got 2 pro teams and most similar to Scotland below that and Georgia cos they’re producing players like Niniashvilli – aged to play 20s but tearing up already for seniors. These two are clearing working to close gap notwithstanding obvious and significant differences to England and Ireland’s resources and pathway systems, and Scotland’s focus should be keeping pace with them or their improvements will eventually (and potentially quickly) translate to senior level.

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