HISTORY was made in Colwyn Bay on Friday night when the Scotland Under-20s team ran in 52 points against their Welsh hosts in a performance which bristled with energy, purpose and self-belief.
No Scotland side – senior men, senior women or men’s under-20s – has ever before managed to score more than a half century against Five or Six Nations opposition, which puts into perspective the magnitude of the 17-52 scoreline.
It was the team’s second success of the championship in their final outing, which isn’t exactly an earth-shattering return, but they have been competitive throughout – which isn’t always a given – and showed impressive focus and maturity in this game when blocking out the uncertainty surrounding the Covid-19 outbreak to produce their best performance of the campaign.
With the senior men’s game in Cardiff being belatedly called off just five hours before the Under-20s were due to kick-off, there immediately emerged serious doubts about whether the age-grade game would go ahead. Ultimately, it was decided that it would be played behind closed doors with only family allowed to attend, which created a slightly muted atmosphere, but the Scots did not let that knock them off their stride.
“When they came down here, with all the stuff that was going on about whether the game would go ahead or not, the focus was tremendous,” beamed head coach Sean Lineen. “We knew we had it in us to have a big game and take the best parts from all five games.
“They’ve played well in every game [in this Six Nations campaign] and the England game was the one that got away,” he added. “Even France, we just didn’t take our chances, and Ireland … the first game is always tough because we’re just not up to speed.
It was not quite the biggest winning margin by a Scottish team against top tier European opposition. That honour lies with the 2015 Under-20s vintage – containing eight future full caps in Zander Fagerson, Murray McCallum, Scott Cummings, Lewis Carmichael, Jamie Ritchie, Magnus Bradbury, George Horne and Rory Hutchinson – who hammered Italy 45-0 at Netherdale, while the senior men’s side racked up a 48-7 [41 point margin] win at Murrayfield that same weekend.
However, the context of Friday’s victory – away from home against a Welsh team who had defeated France and England in their previous two outings – elevates this result above those two Italian successes. It is no wonder that the head coach – a gregarious character at the best of times – was over the moon.
“I’m just so happy for the players, it is a great way to finish the Six Nations for us,” he said. “I’m delighted for them and it is fantastic for Scottish rugby.”
A point to prove
The tragedy of this situation is that this side will now sit out the Junior World Championship in Italy [if it goes ahead] at the end of June, because they finished dead last in last year’s tournament in Argentina so were relegated to the second tier Junior World Trophy where they will play the likes of host nation Spain, Hong Kong and Uruguay in September.
It is not quite the case of this team paying for the failings of their predecessors because 10 of Friday night’s squad were involved in that Junior World Cup flop. But they are – obviously – all now a year further down the development pathway, and it is hugely frustrating that this group of players who have been identified as a bumper crop since before winning the Under-18 Six Nations Festival two year ago will not get the chance to challenge themselves against the best of the best this summer.
“Where we are is where we are, we can’t do anything about it, but we’ve got to make a statement,” shrugged Lineen. “The planning has already been done for the rest of the season, we’ll be going to Condor [Royal Marines base near Arbroath] at some stage for some team building, which will be great.
“You want the guys to enjoy themselves and I think the management have done an incredible job behind the scenes, so it is not just the players.”
“It hurt being relegated from the Junior World Cup – massively – so the main focus has been to win the Junior World Trophy,” he added.” We need to win it to do justice to where we are. The players need to step up and win something, which I think is quite important.”
The coming men
Stand-off Nathan Chamberlain stole the limelight on Friday night after scoring a hat-trick of tries, kicking eight from eight shots at goal, and generally marshalling the team with an authority which marked him out as a player who could emerge as a contender for the senior No 10 jersey during the next few years.
The Bristolian playmaker qualifies for Scotland through his Fife-born paternal grandmother, and is in his second year in the Under-20s set-up. He has been a member of the Bristol Bears Academy since the age of 14 but plays most of his rugby in the second-tier English Championship for Hartpury University, where he is a second-year student.
“He’s still learning some parts of his craft, but he can kick, he can run, he can tackle, and he can pass, so the skillset is good and it is just putting that all together … but what potential,” enthused Lineen, although the coach was in no mood to focus all his praise on one individual.
“Young Cammy Scott made his mark when he came on [at stand-off] as well, and he is still under-19, plus you’ve got young Euan Cunningham who is under-18, so there are a few good 10s coming through.
“The guys are still learning,” he added. “Nathan grew into the game. Ollie Smith at full-back as well. We’ve got threats all over the park. We take off Jacob Henry and put Jack Blain [who has already made a senior appearance for Edinburgh] on the wing. Connor Boyle and Rory Darge are the heartbeat of the team [in the back-row], you can see that with the amount of tackles and carries they make – they lead by example every game.
“Cammy Henderson, as well, has just been talismanic in every game he’s played [in the second-row]. He’s an athlete who needed to add an edge to his game which he didn’t really have through the first part of the season, but coming in here he has taken on a leadership role, been the line-out chief but also a ball-carrier, a tackler, and he’s grown into the role.”
Other notable performers include all-action hooker Ewan Ashman, the industrious Jack Hill at blindside flanker, abrasive inside centre Robbie McCallum and winger Rufus McLean, who showed his threat with the team’s opening try on Friday night. However, it is not really fair to single out any players, as it was en excellent all-round team performance.
“A lot of these players have been together a while,” concluded Lineen. “Just to be consistent is something that Scottish teams strive to be, and we’ve certainly got that with this group.
“We’ve worked hard on our skills and on not being scared to play. At the same time, having a good set-piece is vital. We don’t often get a good scrum and a good line-out in the same year, and to actually have a foundation makes a massive difference.”