The Under-20 World Championships kick off this week with Scotland in a pool alongside Australia, England and Italy. The young Scots have already beaten their two European rivals in the junior Six Nations and travel with the tag of the best Scotland 20s squad of the modern era but arguably without the results to back that up.
Like the senior side, the young Scots won two matches in the Six Nations, trouncing England in the opening fixture to record their first win against them at this level but they may just have been poking a sleeping bear with a stick. England are unlikely to lie back and... well, think of England, when they run out in front of their own home crowd in Manchester which is hosting the tournament.
In addition, a slew of players who missed the Six Nations will be brought back to strengthen the Red Rose squad including Northampton’s brilliant young full-back Harry Mallinder, son of Saints’ coach Jim who turned out for England back in the day. He is not the only one in the tournament with a famous father as Gavin Hastings’ son Adam can confirm, although the Scot insists that he is not burdened by the tag... at least not any more.
“I have played a lot of 12, especially at school, while I have also been playing full-back for Hartpury,” Hastings replies when asked about which position he views as his own. “I am not writing anything off the list but I just enjoy being in a more dominant role [stand-off] where you get more of the ball and it is a bit better than just running into big blokes.”
Is he put off the No.15 shirt by the ghost of a famous father haunting it?
“I am not too fussed, maybe a bit when I was younger, but not now,” he says. “I don’t think I’d make the best full-back anyway as I’m not quick enough.”
Neither is Alex Goode, but it hasn’t hurt the Englishman too badly.
Where to play Hastings is just one of coach John Dalziel’s dilemmas. The squad boasts three playmakers – Charlie Shiel and Hugh Fraser listed alongside Hastings – but that doesn’t take into account Blair Kinghorn and the effervescent Rory Hutchinson, the latter proving himself an excellent stand-in stand-off against Wales in the Six Nations, a length-of-the-field boot employed in tandem with a sharp turn of pace. It wasn’t quite enough to beat Wales who won with a 79th-minute penalty but, after the euphoria of beating England first up, the rest of the competition was a bit of a burst balloon.
“We beat England, we were all on a high after that, and then it all kind of just fizzled out,” says Hastings, who missed one match while on Aviva Premiership duty with Bath. “It wasn’t really what we were hoping for but there are still some positives to take out of it. We have had a good week in France [at Font Romeu, where the senior side prepared for last year’s Rugby World Cup], we know that there is a lot to work on, we aren’t getting ahead of ourselves, but it’s a good feeling.
“I think it is just consistency we need. We talked about that through the whole Six Nations, even just within matches as well, we have good periods and then we have awful periods so I think balancing that out is what we have been talking about a lot. It is about sustaining good periods of play.”
With five matches over the course of just 19 days Dalziel will need to habour his resources carefully because Scotland’s traditional nemesis, a lack of numbers, could come back to haunt them. We know this is a useful team but the World Championships will test the depth of the squad in a way the Six Nations did not.
Dalziel must play his cards smartly because he probably won’t realistically expect to win all three pool matches. Does he target England, knowing they will be smarting from that four-tries-to nil-hammering at Broadwood back in February, and with reinforcements? Does he take aim at the Wallabies, a strong team but without the fear-factor that the Baby Boks or New Zealand bring, or does he keep his powder dry for the Italians at the end of the pool stages when both sides could be looking for their first win?
“We are trying to not look too far ahead,” insists Hastings. “There has been a lot of hype around the England game to come and them wanting revenge on us but we aren’t really thinking about that, it is all focused in on Australia who will be a quality team as well.
“I have never played them [Australia]. We have done a lot of analysis on them and we have a few clips of a couple of their games so we will do our work. The coaches have been looking into them as well and I am sure we will be fine. We will just look at the clips and hopefully do them over.”
In the past we complained that Scotland 20s squad didn’t have fully professional players to pick from but this squad has half a dozen including one full Scottish international in the bulky shape of Zander Fagerson.
Whether it is the best 20s squad to emerge from Scotland is a moot point, but the raw potential is undoubtedly there if Hastings and the rest of the young guns can put all the pieces together over the next three weeks.