After the last three editions of the World Rugby U20 Championship, I’ve picked out four players who hadn’t already made their debut in a top tier league who might go on to make the breakthrough to the pro ranks. For this season’s four to follow check out this article. For an update on how the 2017 and 2016 picks have progressed, read on…
Ruaridh Dawson, Matt Fagerson, Callum Hunter-Hill, Blair Kinghorn and Adam Nicol had already played in the PRO12 or Premiership prior to the tournament kicking off (and Fagerson and Kinghorn are now full Scotland caps). These are the 4 players from the 2017 squad that were tipped to be the next to play at the top level:
George Thornton (loosehead prop)
Signed on with Wasps’ academy following the 2017 tournament where he and tighthead Adam Nicol provided possibly the solidest scrummaging base that Scotland have had at this age grade.
20 stone looseheads who can carry well and contribute around the pitch are worth their (considerable) weight in gold so of the 8 young men on this list, big George seems the likeliest option to go on to a full Scotland cap. The most significant issue might be stopping England getting there first…
Alex Craig (lock / blindside flanker)
As a part of Gloucester’s academy, Alex has been dual-registered with Hartpury College and featured regularly in the Championship last season. He finds himself in a tough position though – Jonny Gray aside, second row tends to be a role that requires physical and mental maturity, so patience is required when developing.
There’s also the size issue – he maybe needs a touch more explosiveness to be a blindside flanker at the top level and is a bit below the height of most Test locks. His work rate is outstanding though and someone like Tim Swinson gives an example of how a player with a bit of dog in them can make it in the international arena – and cover the back row too.
Connor Eastgate (standoff)
It was never going to be easy being a young tyro in the Wasps’ academy waiting to break through in a key position like 10. When a player like Danny Cipriani moves on they just sign another global superstar in Lima Sopoaga.
Hopefully learning from the likes of Cipriani and Jimmy Gopperth has served Connor well but now he’s moving north, reportedly to play for Yorkshire Carnegie. This should mean he gets the regular minutes that will allow him to develop his all-round game and control at standoff. It’s still a position with shorter list than most when it comes to potential Scotland candidates so Gregor Townsend will be keeping a close eye on his progress.
Stafford McDowall (centre and full back)
A key player in 2017 as a 19-year old, Stafford returned to skipper Scotland for the 2018 tournament having made his debut for Glasgow Warriors in between. He can play a bit and among Scottish backs he’s now an almost unique proposition of size and skill.
The smart money may well be on the young centre getting a pro deal with Glasgow at some point this season. Then the real fun starts: seeing just how far he can go.
Scott Cummings, Zander Fagerson, Adam Hastings, Blair Kinghorn and Jamie Ritchie had all played in the PRO12 or Premiership before the tournament started (and 2 years later Scott is the only one of that group who has still to make his Scotland debut). These were the 4 young men tipped to follow them into top-tier action:
Andrew Davidson (lock / blindside flanker)
After the 2016 tournament, Andrew decided to split up his long-term (school, club, Scotland age grade) second row partnership with Scott Cummings and head to Newcastle. He made his Premiership debut in the season just past but may still have cast envious eyes at his former partner in crime Scott who has more than 30 top-level games for Glasgow under his belt and was involved in the Scotland squad for the 2018 Six Nations.
Andy has still got time on his side but he’ll be looking for regular meaningful minutes at a good level over the next couple of seasons.
Matt Smith (flanker)
It took Matt just a matter of months following the U20s to make his pro debut. Having signed a full-time deal midway through the 2016/17 campaign he came off the bench against the Ospreys a few weeks later and followed up with a try double in his second match!
With PRO14 and Champions Cup experience now under his belt he starts the coming season as an integral part of the Warriors’ squad. His next target has to be to usurp Chris Fusaro as the go-to bench back row option for Dave Rennie, and then to start pushing Callum Gibbins for that 7 jersey.
Hugh Fraser (scrum half)
Hugh actually signed a full-time contract with Richard Cockerill’s Edinburgh ahead of the start of the 2017/18 season. However, off-field opportunities presented themselves and he decided to take a step back from rugby in order to focus on a career in commercial property before he could feature for the capital club.
Ben Robbins (wing)
One of a number of players who spent time with London Scottish following the U20s, Ben had a brief spell down in the Championship before returning to Scotland to play for Currie Chieftains. He’s been a stand out at that level but opportunities in the pro game haven’t been there for him.
An excellent athlete, the raw physical ability is undoubtedly there so a chance still remains he might progress further. He should get the opportunity to feature in the Super Six with three Edinburgh based clubs to hop to.