After producing the most impressive Scottish performance of this Six Nations tournament to date it was no surprise that Under-20s coach Carl Hogg made just the one change to the starting team to face England at Northampton’s Franklin’s Gardens tomorrow evening.
Out goes South African eighth man Kwagga van Niekerk, who is undergoing his return to play protocols following a head knock against Wales. He is replaced by Edinburgh Accies’ Jack Mann, a like-for-like substitute, who will slot straight in at No 8.
“He’s a really good, strong, physical back-row,” said the coach of Mann. “We’ve got good balance across the back-row with Charlie Jupp as a good athlete and an additional lineout option, Connor Boyle is an out-and-out seven and Jack Mann is similar to Kwagga [van Niekerk] in that he will give us ball-carrying and allow guys to win gain-lines.”
Scotland U20s beat Wales 27-20 at Meggetland last Friday and, with two Welsh tries arriving in the final few minutes, the scoreboard was a lot closer than the match. After three straight losses the turnaround in Scotland’s performance was as welcome as it was deserved, according to their coach.
“I was absolutely delighted for the players,” said Hogg, pictured. “They’ve put in a lot of work in the last five or six weeks and I thought they got their just reward.
“I was delighted in the balance we played the game. It wasn’t a great night for rugby, it was wet and windy, and the balance between our running game and kicking game was second to none and that was what won us the game.
“That’s something we’ve worked really hard on in training, creating an environment where the players have to make a decision, whether there’s lots of numbers in back-field and we run, or they empty the back-field and we look at kick option as an attacking weapon. I thought they got that spot-on on Friday night.”
It was a mature performance from the young Scots who invariably took the right option with stand-off Ross Thompson threading little grubber kicks in behind the Welsh defence and everyone else chasing them down.
Most importantly the young Scots have a resilience that has all but disappeared from the senior side. In the middle of the second half they withstood a Welsh attack that lasted almost four minutes and ran through 27 phases – twice as long as anyone can reasonably expect at this level.
The Scots will face an England squad sporting a few familiar faces. It is coached by former Borders boss Steve Bates and there are three players who could, if they choose differently in the future, be wearing Scotland’s thistle rather than England’s red rose.
Bryan Redpath’s son Cameron plays in the centre, Sale Sharks winger Arron Reid is Scottish and the bench-bound Sale scrum-half Gus Warr also qualifies. There is a technical reason Premiership clubs will twist their players’ arms to represent England at 20s level, and it doesn’t “capture” them. If another club poaches an England 20s player, the club gets financial compensation, something that doesn’t happen if the player is not capped at age grade.
For those of a certain age, former England skipper Phil de Glanville’s boy Tom pulls on the 15 shirt while Manu Vunipola, cousin of Mako and Billy, starts at ten… the Scottish forwards will be relieved to hear.
England have won two and lost two thus far and the Scots, buoyed by that win against Wales, will travel to the English midlands in good spirits.
“They are beatable,” claimed Hogg, “and we’ve got to take a huge amount of confidence from Friday night going into the game.
“They will be a tough challenge down at Franklin’s Gardens, there is no doubt. Ironically, I probably know more about the English boys than I do our boys. They’ve got a lot of talent, but they tend to be a little bit individual based, so that’s where I think we can get the point of difference, our collective effort against their individuals but there’s no doubt that they’ll be a tough challenge on Friday.”