THREE well-taken second half tries from Stafford McDowall, Charlie Shiel and Josh Henderson secured the win for the under-20s (despite a last minute consolation score for the Club XV from the irrepressible Ross Curle), but the really important outcome of this match was that it allowed both sides to have something close to a full-blooded run-out before things get serious next month.
The Under-20s kick off their Six Nations campaign against Ireland at Broadwood Stadium in ten days’ time, while the Club XV are not in action until they take on English Counties in Moseley on 24th February.
“I thought it was a real team effort tonight. Defensively it was a really good shift. Our boys showed a lot of heart because the Club XV threw everything at us. We know we won’t get away with that in the Six Nations so we’ve got to look at ways of looking after the ball and playing in different parts of the field, but I’m really happy with the guys – they’ve come together really well,” said Sean Lineen, the SRU’s head of age-grade rugby, who also confirmed that he will be coaching the Under-20s side through the Six Nations, in place of John Dalziel, who has been seconded to London Scottish for the season.
This crop of Under-20s players have a tough act to follow. Last year’s side – which contained several characters, such as Zander Fagerson, Jamie Ritchie, Blair Kinghorn and Scott Cummings, who had significant experience playing in the professional game – achieved a number of notable successes, including first ever victories over England (in the Six Nations) and Australia (at the Junior World Cup). There is not the same level of experience this time round, but Lineen says that he is excited by the potential.
“We had a spike last year, but this is a good team. We only have one starter from last year, and Darcy [Graham] missed virtually all of the World Cup with injury, so it is a young team and we’ve only had two camps, but we’ve got some big players there. The team was led well by Callum Hunter-Hill, we have a big back five in the pack and we’re going to play a pretty direct way because of the type of personnel we’ve got,” he explained.
“Plus, we’ve still got a bit of stardust in Darcy Graham, Matt Fagerson and co,” he added.
It might not have been a winning performance for the Club XV, but there was plenty of enterprising play, and given that head coach Phil Smith replaced virtually the whole team at half-time it is clear that this was more of a getting to know one another exercise than a battle for glory.
“We got 28 boys exposed to playing in this team tonight. We had four more on the touchline because both our sevens – Will Bordill (Ayr), Grant Runciman (Melrose) – got injured at the weekend, as did scrum-half Dave Armstrong (Ayr) and winger Craig Gossman, so we had to do a little bit shifting about, but everyone got at least forty minutes,” he said.
“The way we finished is exactly what we are about – trying to play as much rugby as we can. I thought there was some brilliant phases from us.”
“I said to the boys: You can’t play yourself out the squad but you can certainly play yourself in. It is not all based on forty minutes tonight but if they’ve done something really good then that’s going to be hard to ignore.”
“We’ve had two sessions and now we’ll reduce it down to a match-day squad and we’ll have a double session next Friday and then we’ll have the week leading up to the match. It’s not lots but it’s been enough so far so we’ll keep going with it,” added the coach, who led the side to victory in both their matches last year, against English Counties and Ireland.
The age-grade outfit took an early lead through two well struck penalties from stand-off Conner Eastgate, a member of the Wasps Senior Academy; but the Club XV were the first side to really flash their teeth in anger when centre pairing Climo and George Taylor made good inroads before releasing Fraser Thomson for the opening try.
Not to be outshone, the Under-20’s reclaimed the initiative in fine style when Ali Greig collected Eastgate’s deft chip ahead on the full and then fed Darcy Graham on his right for a 30 yard run in.
But it was the Club XV that finished the half on the front foot, with Fergus Scott grounding the ball after a well-driven line-out. That score will have set alarm bells ringing inside the Under-20s management huddle, because it came just a little bit too easy, and for all the ball-carrying ability in the side, there is going to be problems if they can’t stop the opposition at source.
Smith may have rung the changes at half-time but there was no drop in momentum for the side selected from the best Scots qualified players in the BT Premiership, with Jordan Edmunds scampering over to put his side back in front early in the second half.
Despite falling behind again, when McDowall hit the line hard and straight to go over after some excellent build-up play (which involved an inch-perfect cross-field kick from Henderson to the galloping Robbie Nairn), the Club XV continued to dominate possession and territory.
But the Under-20’s soaked up the pressure and when they got a sniff they were deadly. Shiel spotted a gap and raced home from 20 yards to score under the posts, and then Henderson sold an outrageous dummy and scampered over from close range to take the result beyond doubt. The Glasgow Hawks playmaker can be erratic but he has an admirable cockiness to go with his natural talent, and if he can strike the right balance then he might just become the spark plug which gets this team motoring.
In the final play of the match, Archie Russell launched a scintillating counterattack up the lift touchline, exchanging passes with Edmunds on the way. The Ayr centre was eventually pulled down just short, but when the ball was recycled and sent across the park, Curle was on hand to dance his way over.
Under-20s: S McDowell (Ayr); R McCann (Melrose), A Greig (Bristol University), Craig Pringle (Stirling County), D Graham (Hawick); C Eastgate (Wasps Academy), A Simmers (Heriot’s); G Thornton (Northumbria University), F Renwick (Hawick), A Nicol (Stirling County), A Craig (Gloucester Academy), Callum Hunter-Hill (Stirling County/London Scottish), Bruce Flockhart (Glasgow Hawks), Matt Fagerson (Glasgow Hawks), Tom Dodd (Worcester Academy). Subs used: J Grant (Stewart’s Melville), S Gunn (Edinburgh Academicals), F Bradbury (Stirling County), H Bain (Currie), J Ure (Boroughmuir), L Crosbie (Currie), C Shiel (Currie), J Henderson (Glasgow Hawks), R Kerr (Boroughmuir), R Nairn (Bristol University).
Club XV: First Half: F Thomson (Melrose); H Elms (Currie), R Curle (Ayr), G Taylor (Melrose), J Edmunds (Boroughmuir); C Laidlaw (Boroughmuir), M McAndrew (Melrose); S Muir (Hawick), M Liness (Heriot’s)/F Scott (Currie), S Longwell (Ayr), R McAlpine (Ayr), C Marshall (Heriot’s), T Spinks (Hawks), S MacDonald (Stirling County), P McCalum (Ayr).
Second Half: J Forbes (Currie); K Gossman (Glasgow Hawks), A Russell (Ayr), R Nelson (Currie), J Edmunds (Boroughmuir); C Laidlaw (Boroughmuir)/R Curle (Ayr), T Wilson (Heriot’s); S Findlay (Glasgow Hawks), F Scott (Currie)/R Anderson (Melrose), S Cessford (Heriot’s), R Nimmo (Heriot’s), R Drummond (Watsonians), B MacPherson (Ayr), S MacDonald (Stirling County), I Moody (Melrose).
Under-20s: Tries: Graham, McDowell, Shiel, Henderson; Cons: Eastgate, Henderson 3; Pens: Eastgate 2.
Club XV: Tries: Thomson, Scott, Edmunds, Curle; Con: Curle.
Scoring Sequence (Under-20s first): 3-0; 6-0; 6-5; 11-5; 13-5; 13-10 (h-t) 13-15; 18-15; 20-15; 25-15; 27-15; 32-15; 34-15; 34-20; 34-22.
Image courtesy: Scottish Rugby/SNS Group