SCOTLAND became the first tier one nation to be relegated out of the World Rugby U20 Championship since Italy in 2012, after being overrun by a Fijian side who produced some stunning passages of play on their way to scoring eight tries in a decisive victory.
It is a bitter blow for the whole squad out in Argentina, but especially for the 14 players – including captain Connor Boyle and double try scorer Jack Blain – who will now not get the chance to test themselves in international age-grade rugby’s flagship tournament next summer, and will find themselves up against the likes of Brazil, Portugal, Hong Kong and Uruguay in the second tier ‘Trophy’ competition instead.
The opportunity to play in the World Championship is an important recruitment tool for Scottish Rugby, who increasingly rely on dual qualified players from England, France and even South Africa as they look to compete against nations with far deeper talent pools. It is going to be a lot harder to persuade youngsters with a foot in two camps to veer this way during the next 12 months.
“It is very disappointing,” conceded head coach Carl Hogg. “We struggled with their pace, footwork and offloading game. We were never able to control the speed of Fiji’s ball and we just got pulled apart.
“I watched them against Argentina and Wales, and we knew that they would be a very good side with the ball in hand. We thought we had the structure and discipline to put them in the back end of the field and hopefully force mistakes when they had ball in hand, but we weren’t able to achieve that.
“Ultimately, we’ve lost five games. We’ve lost games against New Zealand and South Africa, who are good strong sides, we got squeezed around set-piece and the kicking game against Georgia and Italy, and today Fiji came out with ball in hand and pulled us apart. So, we’ve got to take stock of ourselves, individually and collectively, and decide how we address that going forward.
“It is devastating to get relegated out of this championship. It is a big blow for this group of players, and it is a big blow for Scottish rugby. We understood the importance and significance of this fixture, but, on the day, we just weren’t able to control Fiji’s attack.”
Hogg won’t be involved next year, having already accepted a job offer with Guinness Pro14 side the Ospreys, but he did have some parting advice for the players he has worked with over the last six to seven months.
“They have developed, but at the same time the teams we have been up against have developed as well. I think the main thing for our group is to go back and focus on individual core skills, whether that is ball retention, or taking opportunities in two-on-one and three-on-two situations, or staying robust and resilient in defence,” he said.
“There is no doubt that when we get the freedom to play, we can be excellent with ball in hand, but so much of rugby at the top level is about getting the fundamentals right before the game has opened up.”
Fijian flair too hot to handle
It got off to an inauspicious start for Hogg’s side, with Fiji breaking 50-yards up-field straight from kick-off, and Scotland then coughed up a penalty in front of the posts when Roan Frostwick picked up the ball from an offside position following a clumsy knock-on by Ross Thompson with just two minutes played.
The Scots were let-off the hook when Caleb Muntz miscued his shot at goal, but that proved to be his only miscue from the kicking tee of the day. Fiji kept their foot on the gas, and they snatched the lead on the fifth minute when slick hands found space on the left, where Osea Natoga and Osea Waqaninavatu combined to send Isaac Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens over unchallenged.
Rory McMichael claimed the restart, and Fiji were penalised for not rolling away a few minutes later, which allowed Thompson to narrow the gap to four points.
That seemed to settle the nerves, and after a slick passage of play, during which Scotland transferred the ball across the park and back again, Jack Blain stepped back inside his man and powered over to edge his team into the lead.
Fiji recaptured the initiative immediately with some trademark flair when winger Kaminieli Rasaku hot-stepped through a crowd of blue jerseys, then blindside flanker Yakabi Seeto’s basketball-style pass out of contact sent centre Varesa Tuqova in for the try.
Scotland fell further behind when loose-head Murphy Walker was penalised for stepping out of a scrum and trying to walk around his opposite number, with Muntz gobbling up the three points.
Scotland got their second try when full-back Matt Davidson hit a great angle to burst over the line after some sustained Scotland pressure, but Fiji struck right back one again with the excellent Osea Waqa bursting onto Natoga’s scissors pass and then slaloming past Cameron Anderson, Robbie McCallum and Blain on his way to the line for an exceptional solo scored.
Fiji went into overdrive during the final few minutes of the first half. First, a sweeping length of the park score was finished off by Rasaku. Then, to really compound Scotland’s misery, the Pacific Islanders broke straight back up the park from the restart with Natoga racing on to his own kick ahead for his team’s fifth try in 40-minutes – with Muntz adding his fifth successful conversion to make it 38-15 on the turnaround.
Making a contest of it
Scotland started the second half brightly and it looked like they had pulled one try back when Frostwick pounced on a loose ball and dived over the line, but the referee gave the TMO the final say, who rightly identified that the ball was dropped during the act of scoring.
Fijian discipline frayed and after twice kicking penalties to the corner Scotland finally got over the line, with hooker Ewan Ashman – almost inevitably – the player to emerge clutching the ball after a series of pick-and-go assaults. It was Ashman’s sixth try of the tournament, putting him ahead of France’s Jordan Joseph as top scorer.
It was a start, but Scotland couldn’t sustain it, and Fiji were soon back in the driving seat when some classic offloading play sent Osea Waqa in under the posts for his second, and his team’s sixth, try of the encounter.
Scotland kept plugging away, but they had to work incredibly hard for every yard they made, until Thompson backed himself with a cross-field kick which sailed right into Blain’s arms for a try with 18-minutes to go, which offered a glimpse at glory.
This time, Fiji didn’t bounce right back. In fact, they were beginning to look a little jaded. And a penalty to the corner allowed Scotland to rumble a maul over the line, with Ashman getting his seventh try of the tournament. Thompson nailed the conversion to make it a two (converted) try game with 12-minutes to go.
Scotland continued to push, but they couldn’t get any closer, and Fiji killed off any chance of an improbable comeback when replacement second-row Anasa Qaranivalu burst from the outside centre position to score. Fiji ran in another try before the end through replacement centre Ilaise Droasese.
Scotland: M Davidson; R McMichael, C Anderson (L MacPherson 40), R McCallum (N Chamberlain 78), J Blain; R Thompson, R Frostwick; M Walker (A Nimmo 51), E Ashman, E McLaren (W Hurd 51), E Johnson, R Bundy (J Hill 61), M Sykes, C Boyle (T Leatherbarrow 51), T Marshall.
Fiji: O Waqa; K Rasaku, V Tuqovu, I Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens (I Droasese 61), O Natoga; C Muntz, S Kuruvoli (M Kurisaru 70); L Natave (E Tuqiri 57), T Ikanivere (L Vasuinadi 52), J Nasaroa (E Kuilamu 78), E Waqa, C Minimbi (A Qaranivalu 48), Y Seeto (M Mocelutu 78), A Loaloa, T Shaw (E Sailo 57).
Referee: C Evans (Wales)
Scotland: Try: Blain 2, Davidson, Ashman 2; Con: Thompson 3; Pen: Thompson.
Fiji: Try: Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, Tuquova, O Waqa 2, Rasaku, Natoga, Qaranivalu, Droasese; Con: Muntz 8; Pen: Muntz.
Scoring sequence (Scotland first): 0-5; 0-7; 3-7; 8-7; 8-12; 8-14; 8-17; 13-17; 15-17; 15-22; 15-24; 15-29; 15-31; 15-36; 15-38 (h-t) 20-38; 22-38; 22-43; 22-45. 27-45 32-45; 34-45; 34-50; 34-52; 34-57; 34-59.