IT is doubtful if any Scottish rugby fan has paid much attention to World Rugby’s U20 Trophy, but you can bet that come next year when Scotland play in this second tier competition there will be more than a little home interest.
By finishing 12th in the 2019 U20 Championship after losing to Fiji in their final game on Saturday, Scotland were relegated from the elite layer. This year’s Trophy takes place in Brazil from 9-21 July and follows a much simpler format than the Championship. Only eight teams take part: Pool A consists of Japan, Kenya, Uruguay and Brazil; while Pool B consists of Tonga, Portugal, Hong-Kong and Canada, with the the winners of each pool playing for the promotion spot. With all due respect to these sides, this is not where Scotland want or need to be.
The big question after this year’s U20 Championship is: why did Scotland suffer the drop? The short answer is that this was always statistically likely. Scotland’s most frequent finishing position has been 10th. All it took was for the squad to be a shade weaker and, such is the ever increasing standard of rugby in all the countries taking part, the inevitable would happen.
Even in a ’lean’ year, it’s worth stating that the 2019 Scotland Under-20 squad had some very good players, but while that is a necessary condition to compete at world level it is not sufficient. Check out the other participating countries, and you’ll soon discover that each national squad contains players with experience of professional rugby and/or international sevens.
When Scotland achieved their best ever finish of fifth in 2017 there was a clutch of players who brought real experience to the Scots’ performance, among them Darcy Graham, Blair Kinghorn, Matt Fagerson, Calum Hunter-Hill and Robbie Nairn.
This year. Scotland had a higher proportion than usual of Under-19s in the squad (14 out of the 28) indicating the depth of talent in last year’s Under-18s while at the same time suggesting that last year’s Under-19s were weaker than is the norm. It is a crying shame that some of the younger member of the squad, the likes of captain Connor Boyle, winger Jack Blain, second-row Cameron Henderson and centre Robbie McCallum will now be deprived another bite at the World Championship cherry having had another year of experience and physical growth playing senior rugby under their belt.
Such variability will always happen in a small country like Scotland where resources are meagre. England, by contrast, with 12 Premiership and two Championship Academies, has a relentless production-line of players, many of them already exposed to the tougher conditions of top level senior rugby. Ditto this year’s champions France and the big three southern hemisphere countries. With such large numbers there are bound to be emerging props weighing in excess of 125kg and backline players with exceptional rugby skills.
Before we beat ourselves up following the 2019 result, it shouldn’t be forgotten that last year Ireland only narrowly avoided the chop after a late surge secured a 39-33 win over Japan in the 11th-12th place play-odd. Moreover Italy, who are now doing rather well in the championship, dropped out in 2009 and 2012
It is clear that Scotland Under-20 head coach, Carl Hogg, felt he did not have depth in his squad such was his (over) use of front-line players, despite the cruel schedule of 5 games in 17 days. Inevitably, without sensible rotation, players will tire and that is when mistakes are made, often critical ones that can affect final outcomes.
Scotland had plenty of possession on Saturday but lacked the zip we have seen in flashes in previous matches, which might be taken as another indication of exhaustion.
Growing the player pool
That brings us back to the age-old issue of how to increase the base and how best to prepare the top part of the pyramid. Significantly, the make-up of age grade teams has reflected the dominance of the independent school system, suggesting that something is going wrong in youth rugby.
Independent schools – or to be more accurate a group of seven such establishments – do an excellent job in coaching young rugby players, but given that this sector accounts for just 4.7% of the total school population, what, one wonders, is happening to the other 95.3%. It would be tempting to think that the state sector could be a power-house of sport but in the current climate of education where teachers are being ground into the ground under an avalanche of paperwork and new initiatives, after school sport adds up to very little.
You might legitimately ask if state schools should be obliged to lay on an extra curriculum of rugby. After all, any youngster interested in say, athletics, swimming, basketball etc would seek out appropriate clubs for both coaching and competition in their chosen sport. Why should rugby be different?
State school rugby is not entirely dead. Carrick Academy, Preston Lodge HS and some of the Borders schools show that it does remain part of sporting culture. But, in the main school, rugby has shrunk to the point of it almost disappearing, despite what Murrayfield may claim.
My old school, Harris Academy, and its Dundee rival Morgan Academy, are typical examples. And look at Fife schools – Madras College, Waid Academy, Kirkcaldy HS, Dunfermline HS etc – not much rugby in these former strongholds. Perhaps the biggest miss is Aberdeen GS, which was a veritable powerhouse, but has now disappeared off the rugby map.
If state schools are not the solution, then what is? The answer is clubs, whether working alone or in conjunction with those isolated pockets of state school rugby. France, for example, does not rely on schools. Clubs there are the driving force.
While it is tempting to believe that clubs could replicate what independent schools achieve in their rugby programmes the reality is different. Clubs do not have the same contact time with their charges as schools have, often they do not have the quality of playing fields enjoyed by the established independent schools, and, of course, they do not have the quality and quantity of coaching personnel found in the likes of George Watson’s College for example. Funding, as always, is a critical issue.
Another problem is that many clubs are simply too small to run viable Under-18 teams and moreover are geographically isolated, the combination of both these factors making for local leagues that often do not reach a high standard.
Regional Academies have to some extent addressed these problems by identifying and then hot-housing players with talent. But with precious little competitive rugby being offered by these academies their ‘students’ have only limited means to develop in the way they should.
At the top end of youth rugby it does seem reasonable that the clubs should play in the same conferences as the top schools. This would surely expose more youngsters to intensive rugby and in turn broaden the base of those players capable of moving to the next stage whether that be on a professional path or, for most, a good level of amateur rugby.
And Murrayfield must do much more to invest in club rugby. For starter, it should insist that each Super 6 club has a robust youth programme. Boroughmuir have started this and along with Stirling and Ayr are the models which other youth clubs should look at.
Perhaps, too, time should be set aside for more sevens rugby. Fiji devote six months to the short game, so it is little wonder that their best young players have the skills so poetically displayed against Scotland on Saturday. Sevens not only develops excellent running skills but also what is needed in defensive patterns.
In the meantime, there has to be an immediate set of plans worked out to prepare the Scotland Under-20s for the all-important 2020 Trophy competition, victory in which cannot be taken as a ‘given’. Simultaneously, an overall review of the age-grade structures must be undertaken and radical action implemented if required. Otherwise Scotland could either have permanent residence in the Trophy competition or become the yo-yo side of the Championship.
The Under-20s programme is a key development tool for Scotland’s best young talent, and also a major draw for dual-qualified players such as No 8 Tom Marshall, flanker Marshall Sykes, second-row Ewan Johnson, hooker Ewan Ashman and centre Cameron Anderson from this year’s crop. In previous years, players such as recent Glasgow Warriors signing George Thornton and full Scotland squad member Rory Hutchinson have come through the programme. We can just about get away with one year away from the top table, but any more than that would be a major problem.