SCOTLAND UNDER-20 ensured that this will be their best ever Junior World Cup campaign with a hard-earned victory which guarantees them a sixth place finish in the tournament at the very least; and if they beat Australia this Sunday then they will end up fifth, which is a remarkable achievement for a side widely considered to be one of the most experienced of recent vintages at the turn of the year. Scotland’s best Junior World Cup finish in previous campaigns was eighth.
The team’s achievement is all the more impressive because they have done it whilst relying heavily on a small cabal of players. Whereas most teams have made a point of rotating their squad in an effort to circumnavigate the draining effect of playing four huge games inside 13 days, John Dalziel has asked the likes of skipper Callum Hunter-Hill, his second-row partner Alex Craig, hooker Fraser Renwick, props Goerge Thornton and Adam Nicol, and back-rowers Matt Fagerson and Luke Crosbie, to front up again and again and again. Somehow they have managed to keep on delivering with no discernible drop-off in intensity.
Behind the scrum, players such as Blair Kinghorn, Stafford McDowall, Ross McCann and Conor Eastgate have also played in almost every minute of every match.
Scotland will draw confidence from having defeated Australia in their opening game at last year’s tournament, but they will also be wary of having succumbed to a 35-19 defeat against the same opposition when the two sides met less than a fortnight later – although by that point the squad were coping with a devastating injury toll.
This year’s side have been fortunate on that front so far which, combined with near-superhuman fitness levels, has allowed them to build up a serious of head of steam. They will be fearless against the Wallabies. It is a huge challenge, but the magical effect of positive energy cannot be under-estimated.
Perhaps the best indicator of the progress Scotland have made is in the fact that both teams in this match contained several players who had faced each other during the Six Nations. Wales ran out emphatic 34-65 victors at Broadwood Stadium on that occasion, but lessons were clearly learned within the Scottish camp, and they were worthy winners in this contest.
Wales had the better of the opening exchanges. Then, having survived a furious onslaught on their own line, Scotland eventually managed to ease their way out of the danger zone when they were awarded a penalty against a ruck offside under the shadow of their own posts, but no sooner had the clearance kick been sent downfield than a loose pass from Eastgate towards McCann had the boys in blue turning on their heels. Welsh centre Ioan Nicholas made the interception, and Will Jones finished off the brutal counter-attack.
Scotland responded brilliantly with their first spell of sustained pressure, and livelwire winger Darcy Graham pulled the scores level at the end of a slick blindside move involving Eastgate and Kinghorn. Eastgate then added a tricky conversion from wide on the left; and seven minutes later, McCann showed impressive strength to bounce past Jared Rosser and Nicholas on his way to try number two.
Welsh stand-off Arwel Robson ghosted through some rather pedestrian Scottish midfield defence then fed Nicholas for an easy run-in; but the Scots wasted no time in getting back on top, with a piercing Kinghorn break creating momentum and Graham’s quick pick-and-go after the tackle luring Nicholas into an offside penalty. Eastgate kicked to the corner and Hunter-Hill grounded the ball after a trademark Scottish line-out drive.
The half ended in mild controversy when referee the TMO advised referee Pierre Brousset that Welsh hand had managed to get between the ball and the turf after Renwick had rumbled over the line.
Wales narrowed the gap to just four points with two Robson penalties, against one from Eastgate, during a scrappy third quarter. Unlike the free-wheeling first half, it took until the 69th minute before the try-line was breached again, when Robson managed to stretch over in the corner under serious pressure from Fagerson to edge his team into the lead, and the Welshman nailed the conversion from the right touchline for good measure.
All the Welsh needed to do now was hold their nerve, but they failed to collect the kick-off, then conceded a penalty when Rosser tried to wrestle possession off McCann on the deck. Once again, Eastgate went for the corner; once again, the catch-and-drive was initially immaculate; and although Shane Lewis-Hughes got a hand to the ball, he could only slow but not derail blue momentum. Charlie Shiel managed to pull the ball free to keep the attack going, and after 20 gruelling tight phases the ball was eventually sent towards Graham on the left wing.
When Shiel’s tired pass scuttled along the ground past Eastgate it looked for a moment like the opportunity was going to evaporate, but this actually played right to Graham’s strengths, allowing him to cut back inside and effortlessly scoop the ball off the ground in a single motion to leave four covering Welshmen flailing at a shadow.
There was less than three minutes left on the clock by the time Eastgate had stroked home the easy conversion but then it was Scotland’s turn to fumble the restart – meaning that Wales had one last opportunity. But they could not control the scrum ball under serious pressure from a front five which somehow still had gas left in the tank after 78 exhausting minutes, and Shiel launched a huge clearance downfield for a relatively stress free finale.
Scotland: B Kinghorn; R Nairn, R McCann, S McDowall (L Berg 79), D Graham; C Eastgate, A Simmers (C Shiel 53); G Thornton, F Renwick (R Smith ??), A Nicol (F Bradbury 79), A Craig, C Hunter-Hill, L Crosbie, M Fagerson, T Dodd (H Bain 67).
Wales: W Talbot-Davies (P Jones 64); J Rosser, I Nicholas, O Lane, R Conbeer; A Robson, D Blacker (R Morgan-Williams 77); R Carre (T Mably 77), E Shipp (O Hughes 51-57, 64), K Asssiratti (S Thomas 62), W Griffiths, S Moore (V Bradbury 51), S Lewis-Hughes, W Jones (S Blackmore 77), A Ward.
Scotland: Tries: Graham 2, McCann, Hunter-Hill; Con: Eastgate 3; Pen: Eastgate.
Wales: Tries: Jones, Nicholas, Robson; Con: Robson 2; Pen: Robson 2.
Scoring Sequence (Scotland first): 0-5; 5-5; 7-5; 12-5; 14-5; 14-10; 14-12; 19-12 (h-t) 19-15; 22-15; 22-18; 22-23; 22-25; 27-25; 29-25
Man-of-the-Match: Scotland’s scoring was bookended by two fine Darcy Graham tries (including that crucial match-winner), but the winger will surely recognise that his dazzling talents shine brighter because of the tireless effort of his forwards – including fellow Hawick-man Fraser Renwick, who simply never takes a backward step.
Talking Point: Is there enough gas left in the tank for one final heroic shift against the Wallabies?