The Scotland under-20s have already left for their World Cup in Italy. In their ranks they have Duncan Weir, Mark Bennett and Stuart Hogg. They also, it must be said, go with mixed expectations.
Weir is a proven player at Celtic League level, Hogg has had some experience and is an incredibly confident individual and Bennett has had well documented flirtations with full time rugby here and in France. They do, however, go into the competition with a typical Scottish pack: one that struggled in scrums against the French, the Welsh and English and now faces a South Africa side, first up.
South Africa are notoriously physical, and the nation is yearning for success. They want to win more than a junior World Cup Bronze, especially before the defence of the senior World Cup. Scotland’s forwards may get steam-rollered.
On foreign soil, however, it is not unthinkable that Scotland can beat the likes of England, and particularly Ireland, in their group games.
At the ages of 18 and 19 I feel players are nowhere near their full development. In my opinion more needs to be done to bridge the perceived gap between ‘junior’ and ‘senior’ rugby. Weir, Bennett and Hogg have all shown it is possible to step into pro environments and not be obliterated. More kids need a shot.
Thankfully the days of the ill-conceived centralised ‘National Academy’ are gone, in favour of a more hands-on, pro-aligned Elite Development or ‘apprentice’ programme. Still more needs to be done, though.
It is always shocking when props, hookers and 10s (all positions that require growth, technical learning and, above all, experience) are told at 19 and 20 that they “cannot improve any more”. For me this is nonsense. Look at late comers Geoff Cross, Andrew Sheridan or former All Black and Edinburgh man, Dave Hewett. If they had not stuck at it and been allowed to grow and learn they would not be full internationals. Even look at pros Sam Vesty, Barry Everitt and Nick Easter: guys allowed to play their way up and grow, because people took a punt on them.
For this reason I feel that the B&I Cup, and MacPhail scholarships are amazing openings for young players to explore.
As usual I will take my chance to be radical and propose some developmental avenues that the SRU, Graham Lowe, Bryan Easson, Ian Monaghan and Ian Brierley, Stevie Gemmell and Graham Shiel can explore. It would involve stepping out of the comfort zone.
The B&I Cup is an amazing experience and can bring players forward, as well as show them their limitations. It is much tougher than any club rugby in Scotland. Would it be possible to emulate it at under-20 or under-18 level?
We already have Regional sides (Caledonia, Edinburgh, Glasgow and the Borders). Could they be used to play equivalents in Wales, England and Ireland throughout the season? Maybe the winner of the district championship, only, would go forward. Increased competition could bring players on and there would be a necessity for better coaching.
This is just a suggestion, as schooling and work commitments would have to be taken into account. In the summertime, though, we have the opportunity to send youngsters away to learn rugby abroad and hone their skills via the MacPhail Scholarship.
In the past 1 player was sent to NZ to evolve. This year the SRU have sent 3 boys. I applaud this step forward, but again ask: could we do more?
Firstly, if we can afford to send 3, why not scrape a wee bit more together and send 5 or 6? The SRU already pays for the vast entourage out with the playing and coaching side to travel to World Cups (more on this in a sec…).
Secondly, why do we still have this romantic obsession with NZ? They are the best rugby nation in the world, sure, but will they aid our youth development? Scotland can imagine they play similar rugby but in reality this is not true. The national side now plays, and has done for the last 8 or so years, a game based on defence and taking point when we can.
For this reason players should be sent to learn all over. It would also help strengthen ties, globally.
Any back-rower or 10 they want to work on their off-the-cuff skills, sure, send them to NZ. However, any front 5 player and 10 looking to control a game with the boot should be sent to South Africa. Their game is built on kicking and brusque physicality. Flyers and centres who play unstructured rugby should go to Australia (only because France don’t do summer rugby!). NZ does not hold all the answers. Not for Scotland.
Of course it comes down to money and in the end no one wants to take responsibility for development. Who is in charge of all development in Scotland? I am led to believe it is ‘Director of Performance rugby’ Graham Lowe. He has a remit that covers the ‘Big’ team and all the under-age teams as well. He has input into everything.
For me, though, his focus should always be on the youth. We all want a brighter future. Perhaps this is what saddens me when the SRU officially confirmed for me that Lowe will be at the RWC with the senior side in September. While many youngsters and former club and age-grade players will be looking to evolve or even being with pro-teams for the first time, and the Celtic League, B&I Cup and domestic Leagues rage on, Lowe will be in NZ. With a Scotland side that has been preparing for months and alongside Andy Robinson’s dedicated coaching team.
I know where I think he should be…