World Rugby U20s Championship 2017 Review: Four to Follow

Scotland’s u20s featured six players who had either made their top league debut or had signed full-time professional terms. So who among the rest of the current squad is likely to follow them into the pro ranks? Time to try and pick out 2 forwards and 2 backs who will make their breakthrough in the Pro 12 or Aviva Premiership this season or next – and who look like they could have the potential to go on and represent the full Scotland side in the future.

George Thornton

Position – Loosehead prop
Height – 6’2″ (188cm)
Weight – 19st 1lbs (121kg)
Club – Unattached

Why he will make it as a pro – Because he’s strong at scrum time (helping the U20s success on their own ball increase from 77% in last season’s tournament to 90% this time out) but also offers a lot around the pitch. He managed to start 5 games in 19 days, missing just 25 minutes out of 400 – insane for a prop – so his conditioning and mental strength will be starting from a good base.

Things to work on – Every match is a learning experience for a young prop. Sheer size and strength can take players a long way but he’ll need some good mentors to develop all the tricks and techniques needed to survive as a front rower in the professional game.

Opportunities at club level – Well at the moment he doesn’t have a professional contract (or even an Academy deal). Glasgow might be an option. The Warriors currently only have 3 looseheads in their full-time squad and have started each of the last four seasons with 4 men playing for the number one jersey. Alternatively, a season in a tough proving ground like the English Championship might also be no bad thing for George as he learns his craft as a scrummager.

Where he stands in the Scotland Depth Chart – Probably around 10th in line for the loosehead slot. And with a couple of older heads above him possibly reaching the end of the line (Ryan Grant and Kyle Traynor) he could be moving further up that hypothetical ladder very quickly.

His role model should be – Allan Jacobsen (on the field anyway…)

Alex Craig

Position – Lock
Height – 6’5″ (197cm)
Weight – 17st 5lb (110kg)
Club – Gloucester (Academy)

Why he will make it as a pro – The number one reason is his freakishly high work rate – Scotland’s top tackler in the U20s Championship and not far off double digits for carries. He’s effective with it too, making 74 out of 75 tackles across the last two u20s Championships.

Things to work on – Cut down the penalties – he was the bad boy among the Scottish ranks, conceding 8 in the tournament. The other question might be if at 6’5″ (and a half!) he has the height to make it to the very top level as a second row – or should he focus on blindside flanker, a position he has occasionally played for Scotland?

Opportunities at club level – Gloucester have 5 or 6 experienced locks, including All Black Jeremy Thrush and Puma Mariano Galarza. Unfortunately none of them is likely to be called up for international duty so even game time in the Test windows will be tough to get. If Alex can break through in the next couple of seasons he will have earned his place the hard way.

Where he stands in the Scotland Depth Chart – Probably around 11th or 12th in line for the national side. One of the issues Alex faces is that there, so much of the competition for places will come from players who are of a similar age to him including Scott Cummings, Lewis Carmichael and Callum Hunter-Hill.

His role model should be – Jonny Gray.

Connor Eastgate

Position – Stand off
Height – 6’2″ (188cm)
Weight – 15st 4lbs (97kg)
Club – Wasps (Academy)

Why he will make it as a pro – Capable of playing a solid kicking game when required but can also get his backline moving when the moment is right.

Things to work on – Building a little more consistency with his place kicking. The young Scots’ shots at goal improved from a 40% success rate in the pool stages to 80% in the playoffs and that’s the sort of level Connor (and Blair Kinghorn and Josh Henderson, the other Scottish kickers) need to be attaining week in week out.

Opportunities at club level – Wasps must be one hell of a place for a young back to learn their trade with some global superstars (and Nick De Luca) passing through the gates at the Ricoh Arena in recent years. It will also make it tougher for Connor as he looks for game time in the Aviva Premiership – there’s not much room for a side like Wasps to take a chance on a young lad when they can just go out and splurge on another proven international. Could he possibly be a target for Edinburgh within the next couple of seasons?

Where he stands in the Scotland Depth Chart – Given this is arguably Scotland’s weakest position depth-wise, Connor might be as high as 8th or 9th in any notional pecking order.

His role model should be – Finn Russell (or maybe a slightly weird Finn Russell / Dan Parks hybrid…)

Stafford McDowall

Position – Centre (has also played full back)
Height – 6’4″ (193cm)
Weight – 16st 3lbs (103kg)
Club – Glasgow Warriors (Scottish Rugby Academy stage 3)

Why he will make it as a pro – Scotland very rarely produce 6’4″ centres so this puts him at an instant advantage. He’s got skills to back it up though – in defence and attack.

Things to work on – Keep developing his offloading game. Stafford was the Scottish backs’ top man for offloads with 7 during the Championship. Given his size and strength if he can consistently get the ball away when being tackled he will be a huge asset to any backline.

Opportunities at club level – There will be 7 full-time pros ahead of Stafford next season at Glasgow. In some ways though his physicality means he’s not competing with the likes of Jones, Horne, Grigg and Johnson. His aim over the next 12-24 months should be to supplant Richie Vernon as the backup to the physical, abrasive centre role currently filled by Alex Dunbar.

Where is he in the Scotland Depth Chart – Somewhere around 20th in line to one of the midfield jerseys right now but he’ll make big strides if he can break into the Glasgow team.

His role model should be – Alex Dunbar.

It was tough to whittle this list down to four names. It’s early days to judge the true potential in this group but the early signs are very promising. There could be 20 or more from the squad who make some kind of mark on the pro game. Full internationals could top double figures. For all these players it’s now back to the hard work as the toughest phase of their careers so far commences. Best of luck to all of them from us here at the Scottish Rugby Blog!


Progress report – last season’s picks from the 2016 tournament:

Andrew Davidson
Chose to move outwith the Scottish pro team bubble and joined up with Newcastle. Still to break through with just a single Anglo-Welsh cup appearance for the Falcons first team so far.

Matt Smith
Graduated from the Academy to a full-time professional contract in December before making his debut for Glasgow in February. Picked up a try double against Zebre in just his second match. Competition for the Warriors’ 7 shirt will be fierce this season but he is a legitimate contender.

Hugh Fraser
Steady progress this year as he spent time with London Scottish (playing 6 games) before being announced as one of six Academy players to sign full time contracts with Richard Cockerill’s Edinburgh for 2017/18. Ideally needs to move past at least one of Nathan Fowles and Sean Kennedy this season.

Ben Robbins
Was one of the original five Academy players to head down to London Scottish at the start of this season. Didn’t seem to settle though and after just a single appearance he was back home and playing for Currie. Still scoring tries for fun in the BT Premiership but he’s going to need some dominant performances if he wants to attract the attention of Richard Cockerill or Dave Rennie.

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When he's not watching Glasgow, Scotland (and even Edinburgh) Kevin can usually be found with his head in a spreadsheet working out how many decimal places to put after Jonny Gray's 99% tackle completion rate.
Follow Kevin on twitter @topofthemoonGW

16 comments on “World Rugby U20s Championship 2017 Review: Four to Follow

  1. Scrummo on

    Interesting mention of Craigs’s height. In recent years we’ve seen more and more of the skyscraper lock becoming the norm with 6 foot 8 and above players like R.Gray, Charteris and Toner and the unofficial minimum seeming to be 6 foot 6. But Japan showed in the world cup that you don’t need towering locks to have a good line out and Craig isn’t exactly far away or small. I would say the main challenge for Craig will be adding another couple of stone and getting himself up to 120kg plus whilst maintaining the work rate if he wants to play at lock. I think we’ve seen with Johnny Gray that work rate and never missing a tackle makes a decent lock at international level but adding hard carrying and proper bone ruddling tackles is what is needed to push on.

    If he was to specialise at 6 then he has the size already and the work rate but again we lack a big destructive ball carrier here beyond Denton and Bradbury so could be an area for him to develop.

    Good article though and hope all these players do well.

    • Pio on

      I thin we are over stocked at lock for the next 5 years at the very very least so 6 is a good option for someone like Craig or Lewis Carmichael.

  2. Alasdair on

    A 6’4” centre with good offloading skills…. surely he should be trying to be Sonny Bill Williams!

  3. Neil on

    Players shouldnt be trying to be other players , they should be going their own path and setting new standards , who could you compare Barrett , mccaw or even SBW to before they came along.

  4. Busy Little Bee on

    Was wondering what happened to Robbins, wasn’t he talked about in the same breath as Darcy Graham a year or 2 ago.

    McDowell looks very handy.

  5. Jamie on

    I would’ve moved mcdowell to Edinburgh as he could probably usurp the two inside centres there pretty quickly, just as Kinghorn did two seasons ago at 18. His off loading ability is already better than those two, just needs to become a destructive tackler and improve his passing and kicking game.

    • Robbie on

      That’s a lot of “just”…

      It will be interesting to see how he develops by next year though – the change that can occur between u19 and u20 is pretty significant.

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