WHILE Scotland’s senior squad will do their level best to derail Wales’ Grand Slam ambitions next Sunday, the national under-21 side will be set exactly the same task 48 hours earlier. Now effectively Scotland’s second side, the U21s meet their Welsh counterparts at Gordonians’ Countesswells ground in Aberdeen at 2pm on Friday afternoon.
Scotland has never boasted much success at this level for a host of reasons, so the fact that the team has won two matches in succession, against Ireland and Italy, counts as a record run. The team had never before beaten Ireland at this age group and, while they have still to better the French, their 12-8 defeat over there last month represents the best result yet against Les Bleus.
This modest success (and no one involved with the side sees it as anything but that), is in strict contrast to the dreadful showing at the U21 World Championships that Scotland hosted last summer. The home team managed just two wins all tournament and the final loss to Italy summed up a woeful run of results.
So there was some surprise when their coach, Iain Paxton, was handed the job on a fulltime basis a few months ago but the former Scotland breakaway has teamed up with an old playing partner in manager John Jeffrey to serve the doubters double helpings of humble pie. If the pair were thought in some quarters a little too "old school", they have since proved that some old-fashioned disciplines were perhaps discarded too soon.
"We still have a long way to go," says Paxton. "We let ourselves down badly in the summer but I wanted everyone to know that when the boys came off the field they had fought tooth and nail for every minute of the match and I think we have achieved that much.
"The players understand that we are trying to build something here and the foundations must be a respect for what they are representing."
Certainly his charges play as a team although they have little alternative with few big names to carry them. Indeed the biggest names available, in the form of pro-players Johnnie Beattie and Alan MacDonald, are currently sidelined with injury. Glandular fever has also prevented the promising centre Ben Cairns from taking part although in contrast to the senior side, back row and midfield are two areas of strength for the youngsters.
Indeed if Beattie was fit tomorrow, Paxton would be hard pressed to drop any member of the breakaway gang: skipper Neil Cochrane, Scott Forrest at No.8 and Colin White or Grant Strang on the blindside. The midfield is also subject to fierce competition: Heriots’ Nick De Luca scored a brace of tries against Italy, Hawick’s Garry Law was good enough to start for the Borders last Friday and GHA’s Iain Kennedy scored a superb solo try to spark that first ever win against Ireland.
In David Blair, younger brother of scrum-half Mike, Scotland’s juniors also have a potential star of the future as the fly-half pocketed the man-of-the-match award against Italy. He equalled Chris Paterson’s kicking with six-from-six and went one better with a beautifully taken solo try to cap it all.
"There is very good spirit within the side," said Blair junior last week. "And of course the winning culture helps. To go to France and play as we did in the first game gave us a huge amount of confidence. We were pressing on their line for the last ten minutes but we somehow lost two five-yard lineouts in that time."
When asked what else has brought about the change in the U21s’ fortunes, Blair points in Paxton’s direction: "Both Iain Paxton and John Jeffrey are very emotional coaches who certainly get the players up for the game with their pre-match talk."
This is a polite way of saying that everyone is bouncing off the walls and while passion alone will never be a substitute for skill, it is a pretty useful addition to have to hand.
Blair is in the middle of negotiations with Sale Sharks about shifting his contract so that he trains full-time with the first squad rather than their second-string outfit the "Jets". This is despite the fact that the little fly-half is a year young for the Scotland U21s, as are many of his colleagues, which bodes well for next year. He insists that he has come on in "leaps and bounds" since moving south straight from school and, while he doesn’t want to in any way demean the Scottish system, Blair clearly feels that he has made the right move.
The fly-half does not need the benefits of the sports psychology degree that he is studying in Manchester to understand that Scotland’s U21 squad has something good going on; a win against Wales will confirm it.