BY definition, there is always a big turnover from year to year in any national under-20 squad, but the change in this year’s Scotland age-group team is particularly radical. With little time to prepare before the start of the Six Nations, the onus is on the few returning members from last year to provide leadership for the rookies. It is a demanding role, but Stafford McDowall, for one, is happy to have had it thrust upon him.
Head coach Stevie Scott has made the Ayr centre his vice-captain for the opening championship game against Wales in Colwyn Bay tonight (Friday), with his clubmate and hooker Robbie Smith being named captain. McDowall remembers well how big a step up it was for him this time last year when he first joined the 20s, so is ideally placed to help the new boys cope with the additional pressures of international rugby.
“At the start it was probably a bit of a shock to me,” said McDowall, who turns 20 later this month. “I’d never really been in this environment before – I was working at home on my dad’s farm, so being in the Six Nations came as a bit of a shock. Now, being in the Academy system has really helped me get exposure to the pro team at Glasgow. And I train every day, which has really helped.
“Last year I was one of the younger boys in the 20s, so it’s been really good this year having a bit of experience from last year and being able to hopefully pass it on to other boys. I’ll have a leadership role, and have a bit more say during the sessions: I’m really enjoying it at the moment.
“I think the stat is 24 of the 28 boys in the squad, this is their first time playing 20s. But you wouldn’t really know it out there training – a lot of the boys have stepped up really early. I think we’re gelling really well as a team and I’m really excited to go down to Wales.”
The game against the Welsh will be tough, but it will not exactly be a baptism of fire for Scott’s squad. That came last week, when they played against a Club XV who out-muscled them in many departments of the game. It was a bruising experience, but one that McDowall hopes is just what the squad needed before meeting a Welsh team who have more than twice as many players who also took part in the tournament.
“There was quite a few boys from the Ayr team in there, so it was good to play against them,” the centre said of the game against the Club XV. “They really brought a level of physicality that was a shock to quite a few of us. They put in a good shift against us.”
If Wales’ greater experience puts Scotland at a disadvantage, the upside is that they are more of a known quantity than some of the other sides in the tournament will be. “The 20s teams change each year, but we’ve looked at Wales and they’ve got a similar coaching team to last year. They’ve got a lot of boys back from last year – I think 10 of their players are back again this year.
“So it may be a bit easier with Wales because we kind of know a bit about them, but with other teams that have got a lot of new players in it’ll be a lot harder to tell. A lot of them played Anglo-Welsh Cup last Friday, so they had a good run out last week.”
A member of Glasgow’s academy this season, McDowall has several appearances for the Warriors under his belt, having turned out in the pre-season games against Northampton and the Dragons, and more recently played in the PRO14 game against the Southern Kings. Such valuable experience is one reason why the 19-year-old has been given a big role in the team, but he explained that the coaches will look to a larger group of players, not just to him and Smith, to provide leadership.
“They’ve put quite a lot of emphasis on the players leading things in chats and huddles on the pitch, and then players bringing clips to meetings. We’ve got quite a large leadership group – there are six or seven of us – so we’ve kind of said it shouldn’t just be us who are leading things. We want other players to feel comfortable standing up in a team meeting or presenting clips to the team – not calling other players out, but getting the little details right which will help us on the pitch.”
With limited time to prepare, Scott, attack coach Nikki Walker and defence coach Ben Fisher have chosen not to overload the players with information at this stage. No matter how much study they may do away from the game, the real learning will come on the bench. McDowall knows there could be a few difficult lessons ahead, but he is confident that the squad will quickly make progress.
“The coaches have talked about how more detail will come in as the weeks go by. We’ve probably been pretty unlucky with injuries so far – I think at one point last week we had four or five concussions. I would expect this team to get better and better: we’ve got better and better with each camp we’ve had here, so the more time we spend together the better we’ll get.”