THE Under-20s Six Nations is a step into the dark at the best of times, and particularly this year after 15 months of Covid wreaking havoc on the sporting calendar.
While the level of restrictions has varied across the competing regions, in Scotland there has been no competitive rugby below full-time professional level since last March, meaning that the vast majority of the 32 players named yesterday by head coach Sean Lineen for the 2021 tournament have had no competitive action in that time.
A further complication is that the championship, which is traditionally a key stepping stone into the professional game for Scotland’s best young players, has been moved back from its usual February and March slot to the summer (kicking-off 19th June to be exact), and the whole thing will be played inside a condensed 24-day (as opposed to 49-day) window with all 15 matches staged at the Cardiff Arms Park. The team will be based in Wales in a bubble throughout.
Crazy times, but Lineen is not the kind of character to be spooked by a global pandemic. One of the great personalities of the Scottish game since his arrival on these shores way back in October 1988 to play a bit of club ‘footie’ for Boroughmuir, the 1990 Grand Slam winner was in bullish form as he discussed his squad selection yesterday [Thursday] afternoon.
“It’s been really hard in terms of getting the players together first of all, but we are in a fortunate position in that the players know they are privileged to be able to get away for a while and play some rugby,” said Lineen, who is ‘Head of Player Acquisition’ according to the SRU website, as well as being coach of the national under-20s side. “We had two camps in April and two in May, and we’ve had a couple of internal games to give the guys game-time and try to get them used to contact.
“One thing I’ve noticed with this group is that they are full of energy. They want to get back and play rugby. It’s really encouraging to see them running around and really smacking into each other. We had to hold them back a bit in the games. I’m really impressed by the players and the energy they have brought.”
The side has also played two training matches against England, and Lineen says he was encouraged by what he witnessed. “They [England] have had much more of an expansive build-up than we have, but our guys really performed well, and in both games there was just one score in it in the first half,” he explained. “So, we have a really energetic and combative bunch, and we’re just looking at combinations to see how we go.”
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Alex Samuel will captain the side. The 6ft 9ins second-row calls St Andrews in Fife his home town but is now a full-time member of the Glasgow Warriors Academy. He is one of 17 players in the squad young enough to play at this level again next year, but has already had the experience of training full-time with the senior Scotland side during their Six Nations campaign in February and March.
“He’s a top young man,” said Lineen. “I’ve been really impressed with his attitude. I’m not going to pump his tyres up too much, but we’ve got a really good [second-row] partnership there with him and young Max Williamson [who also trained with Scotland during the Sis Nations]. Both these lads have another year at under-20s level and this is a really good opportunity to shape them both. They are both on senior academy contracts with Glasgow already and I know Danny Wilson has been impressed by them.”
In total, 13 members of the squad are on stage three academy contracts, which means they have trained full-time with Scotland’s pro teams this season. That includes 18-year-old hooker Patrick Harrison (from Peebles) and 19-year-old back-row Ben Muncaster (initially from North Berwick then Rugby School on a scholarship from an early age), who have both had game time with Edinburgh in recent months.
It is unfortunate that tight-head prop Dan Gamble (neck) and inside-centre Matt Currie (hamstring) have been ruled out by injury given that they would have provided similar experience of having not only trained with but played for Edinburgh earlier this season.
Likewise, Gregor Brown, who was looking good for Glasgow Warriors until he injured his knee, would have added real bite to the back-row. Lineen also suggested that scrum-half Jamie Dobie – who has already played 19 games for Warriors having signed for the Scotstoun outfit straight out of school in the summer of 2019 – might have been involved in the early part of the tournament were he not injured (he will now go straight into the senior Scotland squad for their summer schedule when fit again).
Second-row Jamie Campbell, a regular in the squad during last year’s Under-20s Six Nations, and full-back Nathan Sweeney, a stage three member of the Edinburgh Rugby Academy, are also injured.
“That’s six really good young players we won’t have, but that’s part and parcel of the game – it gives opportunities to some of the other youngsters to step forward,” shrugged Lineen.
Another interesting selection is Sale Sharks Academy prospect Elliot Gourlay, who played for England Under-20s at full-back against a Newcastle Falcons A side at the start of May but has now decided to put align himself with Scotland.
Meanwhile, stand-off Christian Townsend and scrum-half Murray Redpath will have a fair idea of what the professional environment looks like given their family connections.
“They are good young lads, and as you’d expect they are very coachable and they know their rugby pretty well,” said Lineen of the half-back pair, whose fathers played together for Scotland in the 1990s and then went on to illustrious coaching careers. “Murray is a cheeky young lad, a bit like his dad, but he is clever and when he crosses the whitewash there is a real competitor there. Christian studies the game well. He has a lovely pass on him, and he has really grown into his role these last couple of months. He takes the ball to the line well. They are both your young so they will both be in the under 20s next season as well.”
“During the last couple of months, we have been looking at combinations, but we’re certainly going down with an open mind, because there will be lads you aren’t sure about and then suddenly in a competitive environment they come to the fore, and others you think are nailed-on suddenly drift away,” he added.
“So, for me, it is about just keeping a real open mind and making sure that we give everyone a chance, but also making sure that they understand this isn’t a school trip, this is international rugby, so some guys might not get much of an opportunity and when they do get that opportunity, they need to take it.”