Flanker impresses in tough league ahead of U20 Six Nations, finds Iain Morrison
SCOTLAND’S senior squad don’t kick off their Six Nations campaign until next Sunday so the honour of getting events under way falls to Sean Lineen’s under-20 team, who play Ireland on Friday evening at Dubarry Park in Athlone, pretty much halfway between Dublin and Galway.
Lineen tempers expectations by insisting that this is a young squad with several players eligible to return next year but his side boasts at least one veteran in the form of Jamie Farndale. The speedy winger will be competing in his third season at this age grade and, but for a slew of injuries, he might have already made the step up to regular professional rugby.
Damien Hoyland returns for a second stab at things after the Melrose man emerged from nowhere last season to score against Ireland, as does fellow back Ruairidh Young, who went one better and scored two against the same opposition. Meanwhile Ben Chalmers will challenge for the stand-off jersey and, according to his coach, takes after his father Craig.
“Ben is very composed on the field,” said Lineen. “If he makes a mistake he just gets on with the game, it doesn’t affect him. So I suppose he is a little like his old man in that respect.”
The Scottish forwards at age-grade level usually struggle for size but this lot boast a few big lumps including Ayr’s tighthead prop D’Arcy Rae, who tips the scales at 120kg (just shy of 19 stone).
Adding some grunt behind him is the giant 6ft 7in Jedburgh lock Glen Young who, until recently, was to be found plying his trade in the back three. He made the move into the boilerhouse a couple of years back, at about the same time he made the move from the Borders down to Newcastle, where he is part of the Falcons’ academy. The big man is starting for the Falcons against Saracens in the LV Cup this afternoon, alongside fellow Scot Sean Tomes. Lineen will have his fingers crossed that the lock emerges unscathed from the artificial surface of Allianz Park.
Just who will lead the youngsters into battle has yet to be finalised but Tommy Spinks will be one name batted about by the management team when they eventually sit down to make a decision.
The London Scottish flanker has caught the eye this season despite being overlooked by both Edinburgh and Glasgow. He has enjoyed four starts for the exile club, three of which were in the British and Irish Cup, with another couple of league appearances off the substitutes’ bench. He is a tall, rangy type at 6ft 3in and weighing in just below 100kg. He can play across the back row, not that he wants to.
“I see myself as an out and out seven,” he said last week. “That’s where I want to play and that is the position that makes best use of my speed and mobility and I like to get my hands dirty. I have been helped a massive amount by Neil Best [the former Ireland flanker now at Scottish]. I don’t weigh a lot and I feel that if I was at eight or six I might find myself on the back foot.
“I didn’t get an EDP (apprentice) contract offer from the pro-teams but, luckily for me, London Scottish had seen some footage of our under-18 game against England from two years ago. I got a call from Simon Amor [then Exiles coach], who said that I wasn’t the finished article but he thought I would do very well at the club.”
Spinks jumped at the chance. His school, Fettes College, closed its doors for the academic year on a Saturday. Spinks flew to London on the Sunday and started training with the London Jocks the very next day. Now in his second season, Spinks realises that he was perhaps fortunate not to get stuck in the usual rut.
“It’s difficult for me to comment because I am not playing premier rugby in Scotland, so I don’t know what the standard is like but I think that some of the EDP guys playing in that league could be playing at a higher level so, in that respect, I have been fortunate.”
If the British and Irish Cup has proved anything, it has underlined the sheer physicality of England’s championship. Edinburgh Accies, with seven of their eight forwards taken from Edinburgh’s ranks, were unable to match the muscle fielded by the London Scots in a recent game at Raeburn Place and the visitors ran out 32-6 winners. Spinks didn’t appear in that game but the flanker was in the starting XV in the corresponding London fixture, which the Exiles won 55-19.
Any teenager who can stay afloat in the hurly burly of English Championship rugby has to be made of something fairly solid and Lineen has nothing but praise for him.
“Tommy is a real Lionheart,” said the U20 coach. “He’s brave, has the respect of the players and he carries himself well. He is a keen student of the game, keen to learn, he tackles hard and he is very, very fit.”
He is also happy to shoulder responsibility. When asked where the juniors would impress this year, Spinks didn’t hesitate for a moment.
“The forward pack,” he declares. “We are already well ahead of last year in terms of organisation and we learned some good lessons in the [36-24] loss to the club international side last week.
“We have a bunch of forwards who understand the game and are skilful with it. We should be strong up front and we need to set the tone if we are to have any chance of success in this Six Nations.”
U20 Six Nations
January 31: Ireland v Scotland (Dubarry Park) 7.05pm; February 7: Scotland v England (Netherdale) 7.30pm; February 21: Italy v Scotland (Stadio Omero Tognon) TBC; March 7: Scotland v France (Netherdale) 7.30pm; March 14: Wales v Scotland (Parc Eirias) 7pm