SCOTLAND will attempt to turnaround a 45-31 defeat in their last competitive outing, against Italy at the conclusion of this year’s Under-20s Six Nations, when they meet the same opposition in their World Rugby U20 Championship curtain-raiser at the Stade De La Mediterranee in Béziers this evening [Wednesday].
Bryan Redpath has replaced Stevie Scott as head coach of the young Scots since that previous Italian defeat, and the team have endured two more heavy losses in friendly matches against South Africa and Ireland under the former Scotland scrum-half’s guidance during the last month – but the onus in these outings has clearly been on building the squad and tonight’s match will provide the first proper indication of whether things are genuinely progressing or stagnating.
Redpath has set himself up to develop a simpler but more expansive game-plan working largely with the same personnel as before. There is only three changes to the starting fifteen from the side which lost that final Six Nations match back in March, while the Italians have made four alterations to their team.
In the Scottish back-line, Cameron Hutchison of Currie Chieftains, who was a member of the squad at the start of last year’s Six Nations before being invalided for the best part of a year with a ruptured ACL, replaces Fraser Strachan of Northampton Saints in the centre.
Meanwhile, at loose-head prop, Shaun Gunn of Edinburgh Accies, who was an ever-present for Scotland during this year’s Six Nations, is out of the tournament with a knee injury. He has been replaced by Boroughmuir’s Ross Dunbar, who is fit again after missing the second half of this season with a combination of a hamstring injury and a fractured cheekbone
And Finlay Scott of Jed-Forest is the starting hooker, replacing Paul Cairncross, who didn’t make the squad. Robbie Smith, who captained the side during the first four matches of the Six Nations, will cover that position from the bench as he works his way back to fitness after a couple of months side-lined with an ankle injury.
Redpath puts faith in Finlay Scott
“Robbie has only played a half of rugby since getting injured against Ireland during the Six Nations. He got some game time in our warm-up match [against Ireland] last week and he did well, but he is still short of match fitness and Finlay has come into the squad and trained really well to earn this chance to start,” explained Redpath.
“Robbie is still an important part of the squad and he’ll get significant game time against Italy. We’ll take it from there with regard to selection for the Argentina game. I’ve had positive discussions with him and I still see him putting himself to be first choice hooker, but ultimately we’ve got to pick the team which is best prepared to go into this game.”
Scott may be short of senior rugby experience, having suffered a shoulder injury last September which limited him to only a handful of games for Jed-Forest in National League One (the second-tier of Scottish club rugby) this season, but Redpath says he has been impressed with the 19-year-old’s performances in training and his determination to fully embrace the step-up in intensity.
“He played for Scotland Under-19s against France [in March] and he has been around the system at age grade levels, but he obviously had some injuries as well. His throwing has been good and his scrummaging and his striking as a hooker has been okay. He has fitted in really well. He and Robbie will complement each other along the way,” said the coach.
“Robbie hasn’t had the game time, Finlay has had a bit more recently and he’s trained really well. It’s his opportunity to take on Wednesday. If he doesn’t take it and Robbie does then we can make some selection decisions. At present, I feel he’s in a good place and we’ve got to encourage him to play well and get the set-piece stuff nailed.”Error, group does not exist! Check your syntax! (ID: 3)
Return of the English Premiership four
All four of the squad members who were prevented by English clubs from joining up with the squad until last Wednesday have been names in this match-day squad, with Charlie Chapman of Gloucester and Devante Onojaife of Northampton Saints at scrum-half and number eight respectively, while the aforementioned Strachan and Sam Grahamslaw of Leicester Tigers are on the bench.
This suggests that Redpath is confident that his efforts to keep those players in the loop during the last few weeks via text message and video-calls has been successful.
“I think you’ve got to accept that for the four lads who were away playing their club rugby in England, that was hard for them. But they are in good condition, they’ve all been in good environments for the last six weeks, so it is just about getting them up to speed,” said Redpath.
“Three of them played in the Six Nations – Grahamslaw was the only one that didn’t play in that – so they were familiar with a lot of things which haven’t changed so we just have to focus on that, and not worry about the ifs and buts of what could have been better.”
Tonight’s encounter will be the first of five matches each team will play over the next 18 days. It is a brutal schedule, which starts with three pool matches at four-day intervals, and is not helped by the muggy weather in the south of France. Having played a couple of seasons in that neck of the woods in the late 1990s, Redpath has a fair idea of how the team needs to adapt.
“What you have to do is understand the heat. It’s going to be a bit sticky and we need to manage the game at the right times and not get carried away,” he explained. “We have to make sure that everyone understands the element of professionalism that is needed to restrict the time in the sun, the dehydration side and all the other little things.
“Whether you go to France, South Africa, Australia, any of the hotter nations, you are going to experience that. We have a good mix with Ewan Johnson and Charlie Gowling, who are playing in Paris, and they’ve got insights into it as well.Error, group does not exist! Check your syntax! (ID: 3)
“To be honest, we have focused massively on ourselves, trying to get our heads around what we need to be better at rather than the external factors. We will know more after this weekend. The games are at different times of the day so there will be different challenges.”
“We’ve got Argentina next Sunday and then England after that. The big focus when I came in was the first game against Italy. Players had to train to give themselves a chance of being in that team, but everyone in the squad will get game time somewhere along the line, so I told them to make sure they prepared well for game one and if they didn’t get picked they had to be prepared for game two and three. We will pick up knocks and bumps, but the key part is that it’s a 28-man squad.”
The Italian job
As for the specific challenge of defeating Italy, Redpath believes that being a little bit more street-wise with the ball in hand will dramatically improve his team’s prospects.
“The five tries they scored all started with us in possession – whether that was an overthrown line-out, a dropped kick-off, a quick 22, an interception or our scrum ball lost against the head – that was five tries we coughed up, so we have to look after our ball better,” he explained.
“Italy are a big, strong, physical team and defensively they are a blitzing side. We have to make sure that we have a structure that deals with that blitz and not commit too many individual errors.
“It is raining here at the moment so if it is wet we have to make sure we don’t cut our own throats by playing too deep in our own half. The set pieces going to be massive, as it is in any game against any Italian side.”
Scotland Under-20s team to play Italy at the Stade de la Méditerranée in Béziers, kick-off 5.30pm GMT (6.30pm local time) –
15. Paddy Dewhirst (Ayr)
14. Logan Trotter (Stirling County)
13. Cammy Hutchison (Currie Chieftains)
12. Stafford McDowall (Ayr) CAPTAIN
11. Kyle Rowe (Glasgow Hawks)
10. Ross Thompson (Glasgow Hawks)
9. Charlie Chapman (Gloucester)
1. Ross Dunbar (Boroughmuir)
2. Finlay Scott (Jed-Forest)
3. Finlay Richardson (Edinburgh Accies)
4. Jamie Hodgson (Watsonians)
5. Ewan Johnston (Racing Metro 92)
6. Martin Hughes (Heriot’s)
7. Rory Darge (Melrose)
8. Devante Onojaife (Northampton Saints)
16. Robbie Smith (Ayr)
17. Sam Grahamslaw (Leicester Tigers)
18. Murphy Walker (Strathallan School)
19. Charlie Jupp (Heriot’s)
20. Guy Graham (Newcastle Falcons)
21. Charlie Gowling (Stade Francais)
22. Callum McLelland (Edinburgh Rugby)
23. Fraser Strachan (Northampton Saints)