Defeat to Uruguay dashed Scotland's hopes of returning to the World Rugby U20 Championship

When the Scotland U20s fell in a heap against Uruguay at the Junior World Trophy in Kenya in July the reaction back home should have been one of utter bewilderment, but it wasn’t. Not really. This kind of thing has been normalised in recent times.

Four years ago Scotland had 59 points put on them in defeat by Fiji at the Junior World Cup in Argentina, thereby condemning them to the World Rugby Trophy, the second tier of U20s competition. They’re now going to stay there thanks to the loss to Uruguay.

Related: Watch outrageous drop goal from Uruguay that helped sink Scotland U20

In 2021, Scotland lost five out of five in the Six Nations, then in 2022 they did it again. In the summer series of 2022, Georgia beat them 55-17. In the 2023 Six Nations they got obliterated 82-7 by Ireland. Then came Uruguay.

The SRU immediately mobilised its performance director, Jim Mallinder, to speak about it. On a Zoom from Nairobi, Mallinder made all the usual noises about this not being good enough and how there was a plan in place to fix it.

But there isn’t. Not one that’s credible anyhow. Behind the scenes at Murrayfield there is considerable disagreement about the way forward at age-grade level.

The big picture here is that the Scottish U20s side has never been up to much. Since the beginning of the U20s Six Nations they’ve never finished second not to mind first. They’d had five wooden spoons, including two in a row over the last two years. Overall, the Scottish 20s have three wins out of their last 22 games (two of the three being Zimbabwe and the USA). A rare respite from this dreariness was when they finished fifth in the Junior World Cup in 2017. Most of the rest of the time has been grim.

Read more: Rugby Fixtures

What eased the disappointment in those years was the hope that some obvious talents would kick on and make the senior team – and many did. Through the fog of failure at underage level there was the comfort of some players coming through to the Test arena. There’s none of that comfort now. The talent is so thin on the ground that even the mega-cautious and ultra-touchy SRU don’t contradict you when you call it a crisis.

SRU reaction to Scotland U20s failure

From Nairobi, Mallinder said that only about five or six of the U20s squad are playing rugby nearly every week. “How can we have one of our starting players who has only played 80 minutes of rugby in the last three or four months?” How indeed, Jim? Maybe you should consult the person who is overseeing all of this. Namely, yourself.

“We’re not playing the quality and quantity of rugby, not exposing them to the right levels.” Mallinder speaks like a man who has just arrived in post in the last month. He’s been there for four years. John Fletcher, the SRU’s head of pathways, has been there since November 2021. Things are only getting worse.

Mark Dodson, the chief executive, ultimately carries the can but he pays Mallinder and others to get this stuff right and it’s not been happening for the longest time.

The big idea now is the elevation of an U20s side (the Futures XV) into the Super Series, the competition that sits below Glasgow and Edinburgh in the URC and above the regular domestic club championship. This is how the SRU intend to give game-time to players to prepare them for underage Test rugby.

It does beg a certain question: If these young players are good enough then why are they not getting game-time with an established Super Series side – Stirling Wolves, Ayrshire Bulls, Heriot’s, Watsonians, Southern Knights and Boroughmuir Bears? And if they’re not good enough to play for one of those six teams then where is the sense in pitching them all in together as a team of callow youths and putting them up against more gnarled opponents? Some might call that character-developing. Somebody else might call it morale-destroying or career-ending.

The Futures XV idea has the look of a sticking plaster applied to a small wound when what is needed is major surgery. The entire underage system in Scotland is not fit for purpose and probably never has been in the professional age. There’s too much dependency on a small number of private schools to produce players and a seriously unhealthy reliance on foreign imports and residency rules to beef up the numbers.

All the time you hear anecdotal evidence from the length and breadth of the country about talented young players being lost because nobody from Murrayfield is watching them. How sophisticated is the talent ID in Scotland? What new thinking can be introduced to deepen the playing pool in areas that are not traditional rugby hotbeds? Where’s the drive into state schools and rural areas? How can the private schools academies mirror the player-factories in Ireland? Where are all the worthwhile games for young players

One senior figure in the SRU told us that “the whole underage system needs to be pulled down and rebuilt.” Tinkering around the edges, as is happening now, is nowhere near good enough. The thinking, such as it is, is disjointed and short-term. Little strategy, little vision. Look and learn from other systems. Do it now.

The situation has been allowed to develop into a full-on rugby calamity. If the loss to Uruguay doesn’t convince the SRU that radical reform is needed then nothing will. But, then, that was said after Fiji and Georgia and the wooden spoons and the humiliation against Ireland. When will the penny finally drop for real?

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