Rugby: Young Scots fighting a losing battle

THE 58-13 hammering suffered by Scotland's Under-20 players at the hands of their Australian counterparts on Saturday was disappointing but hardly surprising.

Given the relative playing populations, Scottish age-grade rugby is always going to struggle against the bigger, faster and more experienced opposition.

Four years ago, SRU chief executive Gordon McKie spoke passionately about the need to ensure that the sort of 78-3 mauling suffered by the national under-19 team at the hands of their Australian counterparts could never be repeated.

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A partial bridging of the gap has clearly occurred since then, but nobody involved in Scottish rugby should take any comfort from the fact that our best young players have just been on the receiving end of a 45-point thrashing.

The only other time in the last four years that Scotland has faced a major southern hemisphere nation at age-grade level was at the 2008 Junior World Championships, when our under-20s suffered a wretched 72-3 thumping at the hands of South Africa.

It will be interesting to see how Scotland fare this afternoon, when they face the "Baby Boks" for the first time since that 2008 debacle.

The South Africans have three players with Super 14 experience as well as a Springbok Sevens player in their starting XV, and are coming off a convincing victory against Tonga, so another tough day at the office beckons.

Only two members of the Scottish team which faced Australia had experience of playing professional rugby. Stand-off Duncan Weir came off the bench twice for Glasgow Warriors towards the end of last season, while Alex Dunbar started once and came on as a sub once for the same club.

In contrast, Australia had five players with Super 14 experience in their side, including Luke Morahan, who toured the UK with the Wallabies last November.

This mismatch in experience raises important questions over the validity of Scottish Rugby's elite player development programme and also the value of international age-grade competition to this programme, given our limited playing base.

Is it realistic to expect to be able to produce a whole new team of players capable of playing at the requisite level on an annual basis?

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Is it helpful to the handful of players in each year group that make it into the professional game to spend six months training and playing exclusively alongside others who are not going to cut it at the highest level?

We know that Scottish pro teams struggle for cash, and promoting native talent is surely the cheapest way past this problem – yet for some reason we are not getting these players up to speed as quickly as those in Australia and South Africa are managing. Providing more opportunities to play in hard-nosed rugby matches that really matter is surely the key to improving the situation.

Since taking up the newly created post of director of performance back in November, New Zealander Graham Lowe has conducted an extensive evaluation of our performance game, and is now in the final stages of this review. It is understood that the National Academy will be split and management devolved to the two professional teams, and it is hoped to expose age- grade players to more competitive rugby through the proposed restructure of Premier One and Two.

The age-grade players will, however, continue to be withdrawn from club rugby at Christmas to prepare for the Under-20 Six Nations championship and so will miss the opportunity to play in the physically demanding British and Irish Cup.

The top clubs in the country have long argued that they ought to be viewed as a vital component of the performance arm of the SRU, as opposed to part of the community game, and this seems to be a step in the right direction. But it remains to be seen whether it has gone far enough.

It is, of course, a question of balance but the movement in the southern hemisphere is from incubation to force feeding of young players. It doesn't seem to be doing them any harm.