AN inexperienced and largely untested Scotland Under-20s side face a baptism of fire when they take on England at Twickenham Stoop on Friday evening, with head coach Kenny Murray selecting 10 debutants in his starting fifteen for this Six Nations curtain-raiser.
Tight-head prop Callum Norrie, flankers Liam McConnell and Rudi Brown, scrum-half Ben Afshar, and centre Duncan Munn are the returnees from last season.
Meanwhile, replacement scrum-half Finlay Burgess, who made two late bench appearances against Italy and Ireland for a combined total of 15 minutes during Scotland’s summer series whitewash in Italy, is the only member of the bench with international under-20s experience.
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All five exiles in the squad – winger Will Robinson of Caldy RFC, loose-head prop Max Surry of Cardiff MET University, second-row Jake Parkinson of Ealing Trailfinders/Brunel University, replacement second-row Eddie Erskine of Bath University and replacement centre Geordie Gwynn of Ealing Trailfinders/Brunel University – are new to the set-up.
“We’ve now got Pete Walton [the former Scotland back-row and England age0-grade coach] as our SQ Performance Manager, so he’s played a big role in identification of those players and obviously how we are engaging and supporting them,” said Murray. “The guys are as keen as mustard. They all have Scottish heritage and I’m sure a few of them feel they have a point to prove, coming into the Scottish system and showing the guys down in England what they are all about.
“Geordie Gwynn is on the bench and he’s a really exciting prospect. He’s played high level rugby at Ealing this year against Ulster A.”
The head coach acknowledged that the squad being thrown in at the deep end this weekend, and accepted that more needs to be done by Scottish Rugby to prepare youngsters for playing at this level, but insisted that his squad will travel to London in a positive frame of mind.
“That’s the challenge and that’s what I’m driving in my role as head of player transition: for us to bridge the gap between where we are and where England are in terms of preparation,” he said. “It’s an absolute no-brainer for me that the higher level you play in your domestic competition the better prepared you are going to be for the demands at under-20s level.
“You look at that England squad, two of their potential back-rows – Chandler Cunningham-South at London Irish and Greg Fisilau at Exeter Chiefs – were both playing Premiership rugby last week, so that’s the standard we’re operating at and it is a massive test.”
“But, ultimately, it is 15 people against 15 people. We had a really good time training with the marines a few weeks ago and they talk about everyone being an average human being, so it’s about what emotional attachment you put into what you are trying to achieve.
“We know England are going to back themselves against us, but our theme this year is about fighting for every inch, and we know that against England away from home we are going to have to do that, whether that’s in a tackle, a carry or a clear-out … any kind of contact, we’ll be fighting for every inch and giving our all.
“We’ve got some really talented players in our group, including Richie Simpson, who has had a really good season with Ayrshire Bulls in Super6 at stand-off, so we’re going down there to have a real go,” he continued.
“Kerr Yule at outside-centre is still eligible for under-18s but is a really good, physical player so we’re excited to see how he goes. He’s the son of Stuart Yule, who is head of strength and conditioning for Scottish Rugby, and he’s come through West of Scotland, before joining Glasgow Hawks in the summer. He played a few games for them, picked up a couple of knocks and hasn’t played as much as he’d maybe have liked.”
“Amena Caqusau on the wing played for Scotland under-18 last year and he’s a player who has got real X–factor. I like his footwork and his mind-set to attack. We’ve been working on some areas of his game where he needs to improve, but he’s an exciting player who I think people will like to come and watch.
Turning his attention to the pack, Murray added: “We’ve got a few mature heads in the squad and Corey [Tait] is one of them. He’s got a good knowledge of rugby like most Border players do, good rugby smarts, and he’ll have learned a lot from speaking to his brother and being in the wider training squad last year.
“There’s a real competition at hooker with him and Jerry [Blyth-Lafferty] having gone toe-to-toe at Boroughmuir this year, so they’ve been training and playing hard together so we’re looking forward to seeing how they both go.
Although Scotland eventually lost 24-41 to England at the DAM Health Stadium last year, they led at half-time and Murray says he will encourage his team to draw confidence from that.
“We’ve talked about imposing ourselves on England physically and we’ve looked at some clips from last year of us doing that, like when we scored a catch-and-drive line-out and when we defended their maul really well,” he explained.
“The big thing is making sure you are consistent and last year we gave them soft tries like when we switched off in our 22 and made a poor decision defensively to allow Henry Arundell to go the length of the pitch, then with our kick-chase we slipped off Henry Arundel again and they scored from it.
“For me, that’s the big thing at under-20s level: the consequences of making errors are huge. In club rugby you get away with making an error now and then because the consequences aren’t as big, but at under-20 international level any mistake can be pretty significant.”
Scotland U20s (v England at Twickenham Stoop on Friday @ 7pm): D King; W Robinson, D Munn (co-captain), K Yule, A Caqusau; R Simpson, B Afshar; M Surry, C Tait, C Norrie, J Parkinson, J McLeod, L McConnell (co-captain), R Brown, J Morris. Substitutes: J Blyth-Lafferty, C Davidson, M Ogunlaja, E Erskine, R Hart, S Derrick, F Burgess, G Gwynn.
England: S Harris; T Elliot, R Ma’asi-White, J Woodward, J Hathaway; M Bradbury, C Bracken; A McArthur, F Theobald-Thomas, T Hoyt, D Eite, L Chessum, F Carnduff, G Fisilau, C Cunningham-South. Substitutes: C Scott, A Opoku-Fordjour, A Fasogbon, R Carmichael, T Woodman, N Thomas, L Johnson, T Cousins.
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That is some squad of guys who played their hearts out tonight. They will move on with greater self belief after tonight’s efforts.
Well played, lads – all of you!
Good effort from the boys after a very shaky start. A few caught the eye, given he could still be playing u18, I thought Kerr Yule did particularly well. Look short of cover for back 3, believe a centre came on to play on the wing, and the fullback went off injured.
Actually a bit surprised that there aren’t a few more included from last year’s Youth Cup Final. Several that don’t feature are playing regularly in the Premiership now, and in amongst weekly dream teams and top try scorers.
Good luck to this group, some outstanding talent in there, but a couple of observations if I may be so bold:
3 boys from last year’s Youth Cup Final – the clubs must be doing something right?
What’s the value of stating that Kerr Yule is the son of the strength and conditioning coach?
It’s just an interesting aside.