IF this result doesn’t send shockwaves reverberating through every level of Scottish rugby then we might as well hoist the white flag now and give up on any pretence of being a serious tier one nation. Relegation for Scotland Under-20s out of the Junior World Championship following an ignominious defeat to Fiji in the last place play-off at the 2019 tournament was a major set-back, but to now fail to make it back to the top table at the first time of asking (after three years of Covid cancellations) is a catastrophe.
The Murrayfield performance department has been restructured and there are plenty of fancy sounding job titles floating around, but results of its top age-grade side have fallen away sharply, which is a major worry because the under-20s has historically been a valuable stepping stone for the nation’s best young players into the pro game.
The young Scots came into this tournament with a record of just one win in their last 19 matches against Six Nations opposition and Georgia, and they suffered a heart-wrenching 82-7 home defeat to Ireland in the most recent championship. International age-grade rugby has always been a challenge for Scotland due to small playing numbers, but this is as bad as it has ever been.
Kenny Murray, as head coach of the under-20s side (as well as head of player transition), will be front and centre of the inevitable backlash following this result, but the roots of this problem reach much deeper than that. Mark Dodson has been chief executive of Scottish Rugby since September 2011, Jim Mallinder has been performance director since August 2019 and John Fletcher has been head of pathways and elite coach development since November 2021. Of course it takes time for a new way of doing things to bed in and start bearing fruit, but patience is wearing thin, and it is the players – with only one crack at their rugby career – who are being let down.
“We’re really disappointed,” said Murray afterwards. “It’s a game we prepared well for and believe we should have won, but we didn’t play well enough, it’s as simple as that.
“Playing against the wind, we didn’t manage our exits well enough in the first half hour in particular, which allowed them to get purchase in the game. We made a couple of costly errors – one defensive one in particular let them in for a try – and in the second half our game management wasn’t where it needed to be.
“We didn’t take advantage of the opportunities which came to us when they went to 14 men, a couple of times we overplayed and that’s what really hurt us – poor game management.”
This result means that Uruguay march boldly onwards to Sunday’s tournament final against Spain, with promotion into the top tier Junior World Championship the reward for the winner of that match, while Murray’s side must now regroup for an essentially meaningless 3rd/4th place play-off tie against Samoa. Scotland will then have to go through qualification process to get another chance in next year’s Trophy competition.
“We want to be playing at the top level available, which is the Junior World Championship, so it is really disappointing that we’ve not found a way to get promotion back into it after relegation in 2019, but we can’t just sit and just chuck it,” said Murray. “You’ve got to keep going, we’ve got to keep driving forward to improve all aspects of the performance pathway and pipeline.
‘We’ve got a number of under-19s playing at this tournament – against Zimbabwe more than half our team were under-19 and last week seven of our starting fifteen were under 19 against the USA – so we’ve got some good young players coming through, but at the moment we’re not where we want to be.
“We need guys playing at the highest level they can, as often as they can, so that’s what we’ve got to keep striving towards if we want to compete at this international level.
“It is definitely a work in progress,” he added. “It is no secret that when you watch international rugby at under-20s level now, most of those guys are in full-time rugby environments. If you saw the France versus Ireland final at the Junior World Championship, the level of that game is up there with pro rugby, so we’ve got to try to match that somehow so that we are developing them physically, technically and tactically to compete at this level.
“That’s something we’ve been driving. Over the last couple of years, its been frustrating that we’ve not had enough players getting game time at that Super Series level, so with the ‘Futures’ team now, it gives us an opportunity to get guys playing at the highest possible level to prepare them better for challenges like this.”
The ‘Futures’ team, made up of the country’s best under-20s players, will play its first game in the Super Series Championship against Southern Knights on Friday Friday night. It is not clear where they will draw their team from for this match given that the national Under-20s squad will still be in Kenya preparing for that Samoa game.
Scotland dodged a first minute bullet when Uruguayan full-back Juan Carlos Canessa missed a long-range penalty following a line-out infringement, but it was only a matter of time before the hungrier and more ruthless South Americans snatched the lead which they were never really in danger of surrendering.
With just four minutes on the clock, they changed tack seamlessly after their maul was pushed back on halfway, crisply handling the ball across the park to send Juan Gonzalez clear on the right, who made good ground before feeding back inside for Canessa to provide the link which sent Pedro Brum over for the opening score.
Scotland were a distant second best at the breakdown and living off scraps, and although Ben Salmon managed to sniff out a gap in midfield, with Craig Davidson also hitting a good line, that move came to naught when the loose-head prop found himself isolated just a few inches short of the scoring zone.
Meanwhile, Uruguay’s ability to pressurise Scotland on the deck earned them two more penalty opportunities, with Canessa missing the first one from halfway but nailing the second to make it 10-0 with quarter of the game played.
Even after Eddie Erskine muscled over on 23 minutes, the Scots still couldn’t settle into any sort of rhythm, continuing to give away cheap penalties and losing their try-scorer to the sin-bin just a minuet after the restart as punishment for dangerously taking out Uruguayan No 8 Manuel Rosmarino in the air at a line-out.
The South Americans took immediate advantage of their extra forward by kicking to the corner and then driving their maul over the line, with hooker Maximo Lamelas finishing off the try, and Canessa adding the conversion.
A well timed hit by flanker Jonny Smith on Juan Ignacio Cambon dislodged the ball and earned Scotland a route straight back into the game from the restart, but Corey Tait was held up over the line, handing Uruguay a goal-line drop-out.
Icaro Amarillo fired home a breathtaking 50-yard drop-goal which stretched the Uruguayan lead to 13-points, but Scotland had the last word of the first half when Cambon hit Dan King late and the penalty was kicked to the corner, setting up a line-out maul from which Tait scored his third try in as many matches at this tournament. Afshar sent the conversion over via a deflection off the right post.
Despite losing hooker Lamelas to the sin-bin for an off-the-ball shoulder charge on Tait just before the break, Uruguay surged out of the changing rooms at the start of the second period to claim their third try when Guillermo Juan Storace latched onto Sam Derrick’s fumbled ball and powered up field, then popped off the deck for Canessa to feed Juan Gonzalez, who rode three tackles on his way to the line.
Scotland bit back with another line-out maul try for Tait, but Afshar missed the conversion, and when replacement loose-head Max Surry hit the deck at the next scrum, it allowed Canessa to kick three more points to keep Uruguay firmly in the driving seat.
The one area which was making headway for the Scots was their line-out maul, and that earned them a man-advantage for 10 minutes when replacement prop Franciso Garcia was sent to the bin for illegally collapsing, and Erskine bashed over for his second close-range try of the afternoon.
But Uurguay kept their cool and scored again when Pedro Hoblog fed Storace with a cute back-handed pass and the centre shrugged off Tait’s tackle on his way to the line.
Canessa missed another penalty attempt but it didn’t matter because by now Scotland had fallen apart completely, as exhibited when overthrown line-out ball was palmed around as if we were watching a boozy beach barbecue, before it ricocheted off a Scots head and was hacked 60 yards downfield, leaving the Scots hemmed back deep inside their own half for almost all of the final 10 minutes.
Even when Finlay Thomson did manage to break into open prairie in the final minute, the big centre found himself all alone when he was eventually toppled and Juan Gamzolez got in to force the holding-on penalty. That kind of summed up Scotland’s afternoon.
Scotland: D King (M Reid 65); L Jarvie (F Burgess 70), B Salmon (K Johnston 72), F Thomson, F Douglas; A McLean, B Afshar; C Davidson (M Surry 43), C Tait (F Duraj 70), O Minnis (C Norrie 53), E Erskine, R Hart, L McConnell, J Smith (J Parkinson 46), J Morris (S Derrick, 12).
Uruguay: J Canessa; J Gonzalez , P Brum, G Storace (F Pick 62, F Garcia 55), N Conti; I Amarillo, J Suarez (P Hoblog 62); J Borrazas (F Garcia 55), M Lamelas, J Lorenzo (T Coubrough 62), F Bertini, M Bartolotti, J Cambon (J Noseda 62), F Deffemiinis, M Rosmarino.
Scotland: Tries: Erskine 2, Tait 2; Con: Afshar 3.
Uruguay: Tries: Brum, Lamelas, Gonzalez, Storace; Con: Canessa 4; Pen: Canessa 2; DG: Amarillo.
Scoring sequence (Scotland first): 0-5; 0-7; 0-10; 5-10; 7-10; 7-15; 7-17; 7-20; 12-20; 14-20 (h-t) 14-25; 14-27; 19-27; 19-30; 24-30; 26-30; 26-35; 26-37.
Yellow cards –
Scotland: Erskine (25mins)
Uruguay: Lamelas (39mins), Garcia (59mins)