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.
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.