CONNOR BOYLE will not celebrate his 19th birthday until three days before Scotland Under-20s play their third match of this upcoming Six Nations campaign in France on 22nd February, meaning he is one of the youngest members of the squad – but head coach Carl Hogg says he had absolutely no qualms about asking the flanker to captain the side.
The youngster already has plenty of leadership background, having skippered his school side [Stewart’s Melville College] and Scotland Under-18s last season; and he has now built up a fair bit of experience in senior rugby despite his lack of years, having played the second half of his final season as a schoolboy for Stewart’s Melville FP in National League One before establishing himself with Premiership side Watsonians during the current campaign. He played two games off the bench for the Under-20s during last year’s Six Nations and is now a stage three member of the SRU Academy programme, which has given him the opportunity to train with Richard Cockerill’s Edinburgh side during the last six months.
“He’s an impressive young man off the field as well as on,” stated Hogg. “He clearly has a presence in the group and I also firmly believe that if you can get a leader in the back-row or at half-back then they are in the influential position, in the fulcrum of the side.
“He has impressed me with his gravitas within the group but also with his rugby understanding. He gets exposed to regular professional rugby by being in and around the Edinburgh environment, and the way he conducts himself is a reflection of that.”
As Hogg anticipated, Boyle has taken the elevation to captaincy in his stride, viewing it as simply another role which he is well placed to fulfil within the squad.
“Ross Thompson played a lot at stand-off [for the Under-20s] last year so he knows it inside-out, and we’ve also got boys like Murphy Walker, Euan McLaren and Charlie Jupp, who’ve all had a bit of experience – so there are a lot of leaders in the squad,” he reasoned. “Personally, I’ve had a lot of leadership experience myself, with Scotland Under-16s and Under-18s, so coming up through that I felt comfortable going into the role when Hoggy suggested it – especially as having those guys round me definitely helps.”
“I played a bit of the Under-20s Six Nations last year as well, although I wasn’t necessarily involved as much as I wanted to be, and then an injury put me out of the World Cup,” he added. “But this year, having played a lot for Watsonians and also been involved as much as I have training with Edinburgh, it’s definitely given me a lot of insight into how a professional team works and I think I can bring that to the group to help raise the standards.”
Old head on young shoulders
Boyle is not one of these young players who has thrown all his eggs in the professional rugby basket. He is also studying a full-time degree in business management at Heriot Watt University. But there should be no mistaking his commitment to the game and his determination to reach as high as he can.
It was that drive which compelled him to move into senior rugby midway through his final year at school. “I was just trying to get a glimpse of that next level,” he explains. “I played schoolboy rugby in my last year with Jack Blain [a former schoolmate and now fellow Scotland Under-20s team member] and our team wasn’t the strongest, so we both thought if we kept playing at that level we weren’t going to get any better, which is why we got in touch with the club and asked if we could play the second half of the season with them.
“We wanted to get used to the physicality because when you go down to the Six Nations Under-18s Festival [in early April], you are up against some big boys who are training with pro teams, and if you’ve been playing schoolboy rugby all year then you’re not going to be used to that physicality.”
Making that early switch to the adult game seems to have been a smart move so far as the Six Nations Festival was concerned, with Boyle captaining the side and Blain scoring three tries as the young Scots completed an impressive clean-sweep over England, France and Ireland. The pair have carried on from where they left off this season, with Boyle a stand-out performer for Watsonians, and Blain getting some game time for Edinburgh in their pre-season friendly against Bath before settling into life at Goldenacre playing for Heriot’s in the Premiership.
That physicality Boyle talks about will be key this evening [Friday], when he leads Scotland Under-20s out for their Six Nations curtain-raiser against Italy at Netherdale. The home side don’t want to get into an arm-wrestle, but they know they will have to be abrasive in order to create the platform they need to play the expansive style of rugby which suits them.
“We’ve done our homework – they’re normally a big team with a powerful maul so we’re going to go and try to play as quick as we can, tire them out,” concluded Boyle. “If you look at the squad this year, we’re really fit, we’ve done our S&C well, credit to Chris Leck on that – so we’re going to try and play quick, change the point of contact and run them off their feet.”
Scotland U20 team to face Italy U20 at Netherdale in the U20 Six Nations on Friday 1 February (kick-off 7.30pm): Ollie Smith (Ayr); Rory McMichael (Heriot’s), Cameron Anderson (Wasps), Robbie McCallum (Complutense Cisneros), Jack Blain (Heriot’s); Ross Thompson (Glasgow Hawks) VICE-CAPTAIN, Roan Frostwick (Currie Chieftains); Sam Grahamslaw (Leicester Tigers), Finlay Scott (Jed-Forest), Murphy Walker (Stirling County), Ewan Johnson (Racing 92), Charlie Jupp (Heriot’s), Kwagga Van Niekirk (Lions), Connor Boyle (Watsonians) CAPTAIN, Jack Mann (Edinburgh Accies). Subs: Euan Ashman (Sale Sharks), Andrew Nimmo (Glasgow Hawks), Euan McLaren (Ayr), Cameron Henderson (Stirling County), Ross Bundy (Stirling County), Kyle McGhie (Musselburgh), Nathan Chamberlain (Bristol Bears), Rufus McLean (Watsonians).