“Devastating” was, understandably, the word used by head coach Carl Hogg after Scotland Under-20s’ 59-34 defeat by Fiji on Saturday saw them relegated from the World Rugby U20 Championship.
This defeat in the 11th-place play-off was a fifth loss in five games at the annual 12-team tournament, and the first time the young Scots have ever been demoted from it. Next year they will be in the second-tier World Rugby U20 Trophy.
Hogg, who now leaves his post to take up the role of forwards coach with the Ospreys, will have no chance to make amends. Similarly, some of the players may not get another opportunity to represent their country on the international stage, and for them too, “devastating” is an appropriate summary of their failings.
“This game was the most important game of some of our lives,” Scotland captain Connor Boyle said. “Scotland had never been relegated before, but we weren’t on the money. Credit to Fiji, they played their hearts out but, it’s very disappointing for us.”
While the players may well take some time to get over this massive setback, the SRU cannot afford to dwell on despondency. When something has been devastated, it is up to the powers that be to analyse why it went wrong, and to begin the reconstruction work as soon as possible.
In the case of this competition, held in Argentina, the players themselves cannot be faulted for their attitude. Morale will be low in any team that have lost their last four outings, and after conceding five tries in the first half to Fiji they might easily have resigned themselves to their fate. But, to their credit, they battled back, and were just 11 points behind with 11 minutes to play before the Fijians clinched the win with a late rally. The fighting spirit was there, all right.
There were some glaring errors at times, such as the overthrown lineout that handed a late win to Georgia in the final pool game, and perhaps the game plan was too conservative. On Saturday, for example, the exuberance of the Fijian attack offered a painful contrast to the Scottish habit of inching forward phase after phase with two supporters bundling in behind the ball-carrier. Such over-caution never looked likely to pay big dividends, and it was notable that Scotland’s best moments came when they were at their most adventurous.
They certainly played with a positive mindset against the likes of New Zealand, so it would be far too simplistic to say that the tactics were wrong throughout. Judged from a distance, the one time Hogg may have got things wrong was during the lengthy rain break against Italy. He had not wanted the match to be restarted, and perhaps that feeling communicated itself to his players, when a willingness to go out there and finish the job in robust fashion would have been more advisable.
As ever, player numbers have to be taken into account whenever the overall form of a Scottish age-group side is being assessed, and Hogg certainly had a far smaller pool of talent from which to select his squad than many of his counterparts. But that has been an issue for as long as most of us can remember without producing such calamitous outcomes as this.
Many factors have to be taken into account, and it is hard to pinpoint precisely what went wrong, but it would be a big mistake to write it off as a freak outcome. Some figures in the SRU may be tempted to claim that everything is already in hand and that Super 6 will be the panacea for this as for so many other of the game’s ills, but that too would be a significant error. Complex problems are not susceptible to simplistic solutions.
SCOTLAND U20: Tries: Ashman 2, Davidson, Blain 2. Cons: Thompson 3. Pen: Thompson.
FIJI U20: Tries: Waqaninavatu 2, Natoga, Rasaku, Droasese, Ramototabua, Qaranivalu, Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens. Cons: Muntz. Pens: Muntz.
SCOTLAND U20 XV: Davidson; McMichael, Anderson, McCallum, Blain; Thompson, Frostwick; Walker, Ashman, Mclaren, Johnson, Bundy, Sykes, Boyle (c), Marshall.