THEIR performance at Netherdale last Friday night was not disastrous. Far from it. Certain aspects of their game could be regarded as encouraging, and when they really clicked at the start of the second half – playing fast-moving, direct, smash-and-grab rugby – they really did look a good side.
But lapses in key areas and at important moments against an Italian side which played a lot more rugby than anticipated without sacrificing their characteristic ruggedness cost Scotland Under-20s dearly, and they can have no complaints about the 22-32 defeat.
It was a powerful learning experience for the 23-man squad, which contained 14 players who were getting their first taste of rugby at that level. The challenge this week has been taking on board the lessons learned to develop a true understanding of their strengths and limitations, and to avoid letting the disappointment overwhelm them.
With an Ireland team who got their Six Nations campaign off to a flying start with a breath-taking 35-27 over England due at Netherdale just seven days later, this week is – more than anything else – a test of the team’s resilience.
Stand-off Ross Thompson believes he and his team are able to do that. As one of the more experienced members in the squad – one of three players in the side (alongside winger Rory McMichael and second-row Ewan Johnson) who battled through the opening weeks of last year’s U20 Six Nations – he speaks with a certain amount of authority on the subject.
“Last year we lost the first two games [36-3 away to Wales and 19-69 at home to France], then beat England who were one of the favourites to win the whole tournament, so it just shows that every game is up for competing,” he pointed out. “It’s frustrating losing the first game but just because we have doesn’t mean we’re out of it.”
Rather than being despondent, Thompson explained that the squad feel frustrated by how last Friday went but encouraged because they believe they can do much better.
“There were quite a lot of missed chances, small errors we made put us on the back foot and then we were chasing the game too much,” he said. “We came out in the second half, put a couple of tries on them and the momentum shifted, but then errors meant we were chasing the game again.
“It’s a young team but I think we’ve got the maturity we need,” he added. “We’ve got that excitement in the back-line and some good ball-carrying forwards. The maturity is there, it was maybe the fact that we haven’t been in that Test environment where you need to step up more.
A big step up
“Ireland had a really good win against England – they played well – but we’ve had a look at them, we know their strengths, and some weaknesses that we need to take advantage of. We need to make sure that they don’t get a foothold in the game.
“They were really good at the breakdown with good jackalers in the team who won a lot of ball, a lot of ball carriers as well, and when England made mistakes they took advantage of them.
“We need to take that 10-15 minutes that we came out with in the second half and build that into our first half performance so we’re not chasing the game but building some momentum.”
Having picked up more game time for Glasgow Hawks at the start of last season than he had expected during his first year in senior rugby, Thompson earned a call-up to the Under-20s set-up for the 2018 Six Nations. He played throughout the championship and was also involved in the age-grade side’s Junior World Cup campaign in France last summer. But a tidy-up operation on a scaphoid (wrist) injury kept him out for the opening of month of this season and he admits that he found it hard to find his groove when he did return to action.
“I’d never really had a proper injury like that before so, I guess, that’s one of the challenges of rugby … long term injuries you have to know how to overcome,” reflected the 19-year-old, who combines his stage three commitments to the SRU academy set-up with studying for a law degree at Glasgow University. “It took me a wee while to build some momentum back into my game. I think it’s only recently, this year [since January], that I’ve been playing with some kind of form.”
The team’s vice-captain is getting back into the swing of things at just the right time for the national cause. His level-headedness and rugby-sense in the key decision-making role could be invaluable to a young team – even by Under-20s standards – as they look to emulate their predecessors of recent vintages by growing as a rugby force over the course of the season.