SCOTLAND Under-20s head coach Kenny Murray says he is confident that his players are both physically and psychologically better prepared for this year’s age-grade Six Nations than in the recent past, thanks to the creation of the Future XV to compete in last Autumn’s Super Series Championship and the implementation of an age-cap for players in both the Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors academies meaning that more of this squad have had a chance to train full-time in those professionalised environments.
“There’s definitely a physical difference in the players,” insisted the age-grade side’s head coach at lunchtime today [Wednesday], as he named his team for Friday night’s championship opener against Wales in Colwyn Bay “We had a meeting last week around our pathway-pipeline stuff, and Alasdair Strokosch [the former Scotland back-rower who is now Scotland Under-20s lead S&C coach] presented back on where the players are physically compared to where we were last year, both in a size perspective but also speed etc.
“So, we are definitely in a much better place physically. Getting players in those environments helps it. Like any sport, it’s about time on task – and if you are doing it full-time you are going to be in a better position to perform.”
The Future XV endured a challenging Super Series Championship campaign, losing all 12 of their matches with a negative points differential of 337, but Murray reasoned that getting used to trying to punch above their weight and copping a few sore ones on the nose as a result can be more beneficial in preparing for this campaign than building winning momentum.
“From my perspective, it has been good for the boys,” he said. “We’re challenging the players to play at a higher level – it [Super Series] is tougher, it is more physical, they are playing against older players. But people talk about Super Series being tough, well it isn’t as tough as playing international under-20s level. France under-20s will be tougher than any Super Series team we come up against here. We need to close the gap between where we are and where these other nations are, so it has definitely been a positive for me.”
Among the seven debutants in the side for Friday night’s match is tight-head prop Ollie Blyth-Lafferty, who is selected ahead of the more experienced Callum Norrie.
“He’s a younger player who is still qualified to play under-18,” explained Murray. “He stands out as an exceptional prospect for Scottish rugby. He’s already sitting at over 130kgs, so he’s a big man for his age and he’s got a real love for scrummaging as you would imagine at that size.
“In the [training] camps, he’s been good. He’s scrummaged well in training, he played against a Wales development squad in December and scrummaged well then, so he deserves his starting place and that keeps other players on their toes.”
The other new faces are second-row Euan McVie, openside flanker Freddy Douglas, No 8 Tom Currie, half-backs Murdoch Lock and Isaac Coates, and full-back Fergus Watson.
Blindside flanker Liam McConnell captains the side, having been a co-captain last season, while second-row Ruaraidh Hart and centre Geordie Gwynn are the assistant captains.
“I think it is a fairly robust back-five of the scrum,” said Murray. “You’ve got Ru Hart and Euan McVie in the second-row, who both played Future XV and Ru has also had the chance to play for Glasgow against Ulster [in a pre-season friendly], while the back-row has a really exciting blend there, with Freddy Douglas a real fetcher-scavenger, Tom Currie a really good tackler and very physical, and Liam McConnell is the heartbeat of the team in terms of wearing his heart on his sleeve.”
Scotland managed their only win of the last three Six Nations campaign against Wales, when they held out for a nail-biting 18-17 success at Scotstoun just over 12 months ago, and another victory tis weekend would be a huge confidence boost ahead of the daunting task of welcoming England to the Hive Stadium seven days later.
“England, Ireland and France have really driven the standard of under-20s rugby in the last couple of years when I’ve been involved in it, so I think ourselves and Wales are in the position where we’ve got to really push on to keep with those guys,” acknowledged Murray.
“The Under-20 Six Nations is always an exciting time of year for everyone involved. The players have put a lot of time and effort into their own game over the last year and we can’t wait to see them out on the pitch on Friday.”
Scotland Under-20s (versus Wales at Stadium CSM in Colwyn Bay on Friday at 6.45pm): F Watson; K Johnston, G Gwynn, K Yule, A Caqusau; I Coates, M Lock; R Deans, E Young, O Blyth-Lafferty, E McVie, R Hart, L McConnell, D Douglas, T Currie. Substitutes: J Blyth-Lafferty, A O’Driscoll, C Norrie, A Clarke, M Job, J Morris, E Davey, J Hocking.