THE Scotland Under-20s squad faced a monumental enough challenge at the outset of this Six Nations window (going up against bigger and more experienced teams in each of their matches), before being landed with the turmoil of several members of their management team being suspended after a late-night incident in Wales less than 36 hours before the start of the campaign.
The Scottish Rugby Union have been determinedly tight-lipped about their on-going investigation into what happened at 3.20am in the north Wales town of Llandudno just over two weeks ago, and have not given an indication of when the disciplinary process will be completed, so it did not come as a huge surprise when Stevie Scott, the Under-20 team’s head coach, opened yesterday’s press briefing by stating that he could not comment on the matter.
To his credit, however, the former Scotland hooker did not try to spin any yarns about life being a bunch of roses for him and his young side as they look ahead to the daunting task of taking on England at Myreside this Friday night, coming off the back of two heavy defeats to Wales and France.
“I know it looks tough on the outside,” Scott said at one point, before pausing to consider how he wanted to finish that statement. “But it is tough on the inside as well,” he eventually added.
In fairness , it should be pointed out that Scott’s tone was not negative – just honest. His team are up against it – there is no escaping that harsh reality.
“We have to move on,” the coach replied, when asked about the upheaval caused by the Llandudno debacle. “We can’t dwell on what’s happened and what’s going to happen – it is important that the players turn up to play on Friday night. The players just need to concentrate on their rugby.”
“We made them [the players] aware of the situation and now we move on. At the end of the day, it was nothing to do with the players – it didn’t involve them – so we just need to improve our performance.”
Scott confirmed that former Glasgow Warriors full-back Peter Murchie and Scotland Under-18 head coach Iain Monaghan have been brought in to assist with preparing the team for Friday’s match, in place of suspended duo Nikki Walker and Ben Fisher. But he was unable to say whether this new set-up is likely to continue to the end of the championship.
“I imagine it will just go until the investigation is complete and we’ll make any decisions which we need to make off the back of that,” he said.
“It is good that Iain is here, he has been involved with this programme before and he knows the players through the academy as well, which helps me coming in from not having been previously involved with the academy system. He’s given me a guide on the players, which has been good,” he added.
“I’m head coach so I’m leading and making sure that the transition has been clear with the new coaches coming in. They have adapted well to that and have delivered what is required.”
By definition, Under-20 sides are inexperienced, but this is particularly true with the current Scottish group.
Centre Stafford McDowall is the only member of the set-up to have played during Scotland’s march to fifth at last summer’s under-20s World Championship, while captain and hooker Robbie Smith and back-row Archie Erskine were in the squad but didn’t get any game time.
Several members of the squad have experience training in a professional environment with academy set-ups in either Scotland, England, France and South Africa, but only three of them –McDowall, scrum-half Kaleem Barreto and number Devante Onojaife – have had a combined total of 28 minutes off the bench in pro rugby.
Most of the home-based players in the squad have played regularly in the BT Premiership this season, but not all of them. Shaun Gunn and Finlay Richardson, the starting props against France, play for Edinburgh Accies in National League One, while back-up tight-head Murphy Walker has been playing his rugby for Strathallan School this season.
Centre Callum McLelland signed up with the SRU from rugby league last November and had one 15-aside appearance off the bench for Hawick under his belt before the start of this Six Nations campaign.
“It’s always going to be a tough challenge but the more games this group play together the better they’ll get, so I’m hoping for another improvement this week,” said Scott. “We struggled defensively in the last game so that’s been a big focus for us this week.”
Scotland ended up on the painful end of a 19-69 hammering against France but it could have been a lot worse. The fact that the team did not capitulate when they lost three quick-fire tries at the start of the second-half to fall 0-55 behind provides cause for encouragement.
“They showed a bit of fight and that’s what they need to show again this week. I’ve said to the players: ‘What’s happened has happened – but if there was ever time to get a reaction then this is it – at home against England’,” agreed Scott.
“It’s on a rugby pitch as well. If you play these professional teams on 3G pitches [as was the case when playing France at Broadwood Stadium in Cumbernauld] then it is tough because they are so athletic. We’re looking forward to playing on a grass pitch in front of a decent crowd at Myreside. I’m looking for a reaction. The timing of it is good for us.”
“Some of our boys are playing in the second division, so the only way they are going to get better is playing in these types of games and training with better players, so that’s my approach to it – getting more interaction with the national team and training against them.”
“It [the step-up] probably came as a bit of a shock to them,” added Scott. “I knew what was coming because I’ve been involved in that, and now the boys are more aware of that themselves – so as we move forward they know what the challenge is.
“For a guy like Finlay Richardson, coming in with not a lot of rugby behind him – what he has done is pretty impressive. In the bigger picture, that is a big tick because he’s been thrown in there and he’s coped alright with limited level of rugby and support.”
“Everything is a learning experience. We’re educating them as rugby players and as people – so that they leave this programme as better equipped for whatever comes next.”