Scotland's rising sons target 2019 Japan World Cup

Scotland stand-off Finn Russell played in the Under-20 World Championships held in New Zealand back in 2012 and exactly two years later to the month he ran on to the field at Compass Stadium in Houston, Texas, to win his first full Scotland cap against the USA Eagles aged just 21.
Zander Fagerson is already a full international. Picture: PAZander Fagerson is already a full international. Picture: PA
Zander Fagerson is already a full international. Picture: PA

Admittedly Scotland had been searching for an international-class stand-off for as long as archaeologists have been hunting the Holy Grail but the point is that young players grow up pretty quickly these days, especially in the back division.

All of which begs the question as to which of John Dalziel’s junior squad will be ready in time to catch the flight to Japan for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, still three years hence, with the age grade side boasting some outstanding candidates who have already beaten England, Australia and Italy.

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Under normal circumstances we could write off the pack who generally mature in a playing sense a good bit later than the backs. However, this squad is unique in boasting a full international prop in the burly shape of Zander Fagerson. The Glasgow Warrior is already technically excellent, he can’t afford not to be, and he is learning all the time.

Scotland always have a crisis in one position or another but tighthead appears to pose a perennial problem. WP Nel started against Japan yesterday, backed up by Moray Low, and while the Exeter Chief has enjoyed something of a renaissance since moving to the West Country, you still fancy that if Fagerson continues to progress over the next two years as he did last season the youngster will be there or thereabouts in three years time.

His front row brother in arms Murray McCallum has also impressed and the loosehead prop grabbed a try against Italy he had no right to score, barreling past a giant Italian lock with textbook body position and a leg drive that would have had Jim Telfer himself purring with pleasure. But Scotland have a few looseheads in reserve and the Dunfermline youngster needs to impress Glasgow first.

Two other forwards deserve a mention. Although Matt Smith is well down the pecking order, the flanker is a clever, physical player which is a good start for any openside. He prevented one try in the Six Nations match against Wales by knocking the ball out of the winger’s grasp over the Scotland try line.

A stronger forward candidate is Scott Cummings, who already has eight appearances for Glasgow under his belt, and one yellow card, which is good going for a teenager in the front five.

At 6ft 6in he isn’t huge for a modern lock but his athleticism and work rate are both hugely impressive, one break from the lock led directly to a Scotland try against Italy on Wednesday. The Scotland skipper comes across as wise for his years having led this squad to impressive first-time victories over England in the Six Nations and Australia in the opening game of the World Champs.

Cummings should get a lot more game time next season in the absence of Leone Nakarawa who has joined Racing in Paris and, while Scotland have some depth in the second row, he should at least be in the mix when the selectors pick the next World Cup squad.

The backs are far more likely to put their hand up but two potential prospects failed to stay the course. Centre/stand-off Rory Hutchinson looks the part but had precious little time to prove it as he retired injured. He isn’t getting much game time at Northampton Saints so perhaps Glasgow/Edinburgh should make inquiries, although their first priority may be finding a space for the Stormers’ centre Huw Jones, whom Hutchinson resembles as a player, slight but speedy.

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So too Hawick winger Darcy Graham, also injured out of the championship but not before scoring one of the solo scores of the tournament to grab the points against 14-man Australia.

Wing is another of Scotland’s problem positions but, at just 75 kgs, Graham is slight and the Scottish pro teams have a bias against small players.

In the midfield Tom Galbraith and Adam Hastings have both impressed but the latter needs more time in the saddle at 10 to hone his option taking and execution.

What the young Bath player does have is time on the ball, he rarely if ever looks hurried, which is a priceless asset in a playmaker. Scotland need depth at ten and while the 2019 World Cup looks a big ask, it’s not impossible that Hastings will provide it in the future.

But the stand-out Scotland back, and a strong candidate for Japan, has to be Blair Kinghorn, who was ordinary at 10 and outstanding at full-back. I would have liked to have seen Kinghorn playing stand-off for Edinburgh given that it is much simpler moving backwards, from 10 to 15, than is is to go in the opposite direction, and he played stand-off throughout his schoolboy career.

He is tall, skillful and surprisingly quick for a big man. Wherever he ends up, Kinghorn has the ability to make things happen. Provided he continues to improve there is no reason the teenager can’t make the 2019 squad.

And even if my choices don’t get on the plane to Japan, several of this U20’s squad almost certainly will.