The Scotland Club XV met the Scotland Under 20 team on the back pitches at Murrayfield on Tuesday 23rd January in what was very much a ‘training match’.
Both teams had large squads of players on the touchline and rotated players regularly. The Club XV had a more familiar core, and their cohesiveness, physicality and greater experience helped them to a comfortable win, 41-7.
The Under 20s under new coach Steve Scott (part of the Gala takeover at the top of Scottish coaching with the full XV, Sevens, and 20s all being led by coaches who learned the game in Galashiels) looked to still be fishing from a large pool, before they settle on a squad for the approaching 6 Nations. They will, as this age group often do, learn quickly and improve swiftly as their representative season goes on.
The Club XV benefited from players who have played at this level for a number of seasons. Jack Turley and Ian Moody gave a dynamic lead up front, while behind the scrum Ross Curle
provided regular onfield positional coaching to those around him. Robbie Nelson was an aggressive presence in the centre, and Craig Gossman skipped and sidestepped impressively through some heavy midfield traffic on a number of occasions exploiting his pace to set up opportunities for others around him.
A dominant scrum, with Hawick’s Shaun Muir to the fore, and a commanding presence at scrum-half in Currie’s Charlie Shiel, saw the Club XV score five first-half tries through Shiel, Jamie Forbes (2) and Gossman plus a penalty try after a collapsed maul. The swirling wind made conversions difficult, and Craig Jackson only managed one successfully (plus the automatic conversion for the penalty try) so the Club XV led 29-0 at the break.
Half-time: Club XV 29-0 Scotland U20
They added two more in the second half, both through half-time replacement Tom Gordon of Currie, who both over the ball in rucks, and in loose play had a very impressive showing and will surely have sealed his starting place for the 1st game against Ireland on February 23rd . While the Club XV is inevitably used as a development tool for some BT Academy Players (Shiel, Gordon and Hamish Bain are all effectively ‘full time players’ who played last night), it is pleasing to see it as a reward for solid club players for whom it may well be the pinnacle of their representative careers.
Robbie Nelson is one such player, who was outstanding last night in providing front-foot ball by constantly crossing the gain line and recycling effectively, while Jordan Edmunds and his second half replacement Scott Bickerstaff both showed impressive acceleration with the ball in hand. I was personally delighted to see Ruaridh Leishman (Stirling County) play the second half, as for
me he has been the most consistent player in Premier 1 this season, and last night he put himself about to good effect in both attack and defence.
Where the Under 20s are in terms of preparation is more difficult to judge.
The SQ programme had parachuted in two players from South Africa (loose head Nathan McBeth and standoff Marc Morrison), one from the USA (flanker Bailey Wilson), two from French Academies (lock Ewan Johnson at Racing 92 and scrum-half Charlie Gowling at Stade Francais) and four from the exiles programme in England (Chapman, Gloucester Academy scrum half; Onojaife, a Northampton Academy prop/Number 8; Bradley Clements from Ealing, and Harry Butler from Hartpury).
One senses that some of them have been specifically sought out to cover for areas of weakness in the team, rather than because they necessarily see their long-term future with Scotland now that U20s no longer tie you to the country.
On the other hand, a number of players who have played Under 18 and Under 19 for Scotland and are now playing at universities in England (e.g Jamie Ross, George Bordill, Jake Hennessy, Ben Appleson), or with Aviva Premiership Academy teams (Cameron Redpath, Fraser Strachan, Fraser Dingwall) were missing. Indeed, some of them may have committed to England.
The Under 20s suffered a number of injuries on the night (McLaren, Hughes, Graham were all subbed off early in the first half) as well as losing some in training sessions before the game (Richardson, York, Barretto), so it was difficult to make an assessment of their overall strength.
Their one try of the evening came from replacement prop Shaun Gunn, and there were some periods where their forwards competed well in the loose, though they struggled most of the night in the scrum. Ewan Johnson looked a lock of serious physicality, and Devante Onojaife could provide them with some dynamism in the back row. For the Under 20s to flourish it will need their spine of Stafford McDowall, Kaleem Barretto, Robbie Smith, Jamie Hodgson and Matt Fagerson all to be playing and all to be on top of their game. Ross Thompson was given the 10 shirt for the first half last night, and Callum McLelland and Grant Hughes both had opportunities in the pivot position in the second half. They will need to decide who they are going to trust most in this position for the season. They will also, like the senior XV, need to find a couple of props able to stay fit enough to perform consistently for the whole international season.
If only we had as many props available for our international teams as we have BT sponsored staff, who swarmed around the pitch in such large numbers last night one wondered again if there wasn’t enough money being consumed in backroom staff at Murrayfield to fund a third professional team…
Club XV: J Forbes (Currie); J Edmunds (Boroughmuir), R Curle (Stirling Co), R Nelson (Currie), C Gossman (Ayr); C Jackson (Melrose), C Shiel (Currie); S Muir (Hawick), R Graham (Watsonians), S Longwell (Ayr), J Turley (Heriots), I Moody (Melrose), N Irvine Hess (Melrose), P McCallum (Ayr), G Runcziman (Melrose).
Replacements: S Bickerstaff (Marr), M McAndrew (Melrose), D Armstrong (Ayr), N Fraser (Watsonians), S Cessford (Heriots), J Matthews (Boroughmuir), R Anderson (Melrose), H Bain (Currie), R Leishman (Stirling Co), T Gordon (Currie), R Drummond (Watsonians).
Under 20s XV: P Dewhirst (Ayr); G Faulds (Currie), R McMichael (Hawks), S McDowall (Ayr), K Rowe (Hawks); R Thompson (Hawks), C Chapman (Gloucester); N McBeth (Lions, SA), R Smith
(Ayr), E McLaren (Ayr), E Johnson (Racing 92), J Hodgson (Watsonians), M Hughes (Heriots), D Onojaife (Northampton), G Graham (Hawick).
Replacements: S Gunn (Edinburgh A), F Hobbis (Watsonians), B Clements (Ealing), P Cairncross (Hawks), H Butler (Hartpury), D Marek (Boroughmuir), B Wilson (Utah, USA), C Gowling (Stade Francais), G Munro (Hawick), C McLelland (Edinburgh), G Hughes (Stirling Co), R Yourston (Jed), M New (Hawks), S Yawayawa (Hawks), L Trotter (Stirling Co), M Morrison (Lions, SA).