The recently completed World Rugby u20s Championships in Manchester must go down as the most successful in history for Scotland. Their best finish of 8th (achieved last year) was equalled as they made it into the 5th-8th playoff tier for just the second time. The basis of the 2015 campaign’s success was a single victory against Argentina though – 2016 saw the young Scots pick up 2 wins including, in Australia, the biggest scalp in 45 games of tournament play (and also the only win they have managed against a higher ranking opponent).
The under 20s in 2017
One of the corollaries of selecting the most experienced squad ever to tackle an u20s Championship is that there will be relatively few returnees available for next season’s campaign to be held in Tbilisi and Kutaisi, Georgia. From a historic high of 13 players with previous tournament experience in Manchester there will be a maximum of just 7 of those selected in the initial squad who will be eligible next year (the fewest since 2012):
- Alex Craig (lock)
- Darcy Graham (wing)
- Calum Hunter-Hill (lock)
- Blair Kinghorn (full back / stand off)
- Robbie Nairn (wing)
- Charlie Shiel (scrum half)
- George Thornton (prop)
This could be a transitional year for the under 20s and it will be tough to match the achievements of the past two years. One thing that stands in the coaches favour is the consistency of standards that can be seen in the players coming through the Scottish Rugby Academy and the wider club scene. Young players are arriving into the highest age grade with a far greater level of physical preparedness and professionalism. Next season’s under 20s 6 Nations and World Rugby Championship will be the acid test as to whether Scotland have a continual conveyor belt of talent coming through or if recent successes have been based on an outstanding crop of players that won’t be repeated in a hurry.
The pro game and beyond
No less than 5 of this year’s squad of under 20s had already featured in the Pro 12 or Aviva Premiership and Zander Fagerson was the first Scot to play in the tournament with a full international cap under his belt. A number of players also already have full time professional contracts confirmed for next season. The list (so far) is:
- Scott Cummings (lock) – Glasgow
- Andrew Davidson (lock) – Newcastle
- Zander Fagerson (prop) – Glasgow
- Rory Hutchinson (centre / stand off) – Northampton
- Blair Kinghorn (full back / stand off) – Edinburgh
- Jamie Ritchie (flanker / number 8) – Edinburgh
Adding in Magnus Bradbury (flanker – Edinburgh) and Lewis Carmichael (lock – Edinburgh) from the 2015 squad and it’s clear that the group who have posted Scotland’s two best u20s Championship finishes are already well on their way to showing they can make a significant contribution to the future of the Scottish pro game and potentially the national side.
Ultimately, to a large extent, this is what the under 20s, and in particular this tournament, is all about. While for a large proportion of the squad this will be the pinnacle of their rugby career, the very best amongst them though will go on to star in the professional game and feed through into the senior squad. But how successful have Scotland been in the past with their under 20s? And how successful it is reasonable to expect that this generation will be? For a full breakdown of how many players have progressed into the pro setup and how many have won full caps there’s a detailed analysis in this article – pure statistical porn for those who appreciate such things!
In summary though the 2009 and 2010 squads set the highwater mark for young Scottish players:
- Out of the 48 named in the initial squads, just 6 did not go on to appear at Championship / Pro D2 level or above.
- 27 went on to play in one of the three top European leagues – 56%.
- No less than 15 have subsequently played for Scotland – 31%.
So can this current generation go on to make a similarly significant mark at the top level in Scotland and beyond? The stars already seem to be aligning for this to be the case. They have outperformed a cycle of players that now form the heart of a Scotland squad who are slowly but surely improving the national side’s standing in the world game. The two pro teams in Scotland have both seen clear outs of squad players that suggest they expect to be relying more on rookie pros and Academy players to provide depth in this and future seasons. And of course the core of this group are a very talented clique who have already made their top level debuts and who can rightly be expected to continue to add more and more game time over the coming seasons.
Tomorrow: the final part of OTOTM’s look at the under 20s and it’s time to pick out Four To Follow – who from this season’s squad will be next to make their breakthrough?