THERE are a couple of fairly significant mitigating factors which must be taken into consideration in any reasonable assessment of the Scotland Under-20 team’s recent Six Nations whitewash in Wales. 

First and foremost, as many as nine of the team’s most experienced players – near certain starters if head coach Sean Lineen had the luxury of picking his strongest possible side – were missing through injury, including scrum-half Jamie Dobie, centre Matt Currie, flanker Gregor Brown, tight-head prop Dan Gamble and full-back Harry Paterson, all of whom have played pro level rugby in the last year.   

Compounding this, Covid means that there has been no competitive rugby below full-time pro level in Scotland since March 2019, meaning that No8 Ben Muncaster (two appearances for Edinburgh), hooker Patrick Harrison (three appearances for Edinburgh) and flanker Harri Morris (one appearance for Edinburgh) are the only three players in the squad to have tasted any competitive rugby whatsoever during the 15 months leading up to the kick-off of this tournament.  

Both these points are valid, but it is only fair to counterweight their relevance by acknowledging that every other team in the tournament faced the same or similar challenges leading into the championship. Injuries happen and Covid is a global pandemic which has prompted broadly similar restrictions across all of the Six Nations’ territories. 

We can have sympathy for Lineen and his squad, but we must acknowledge that Scotland’s travails during the last month have exposed how poorly equipped the game in this country is to cope with a bit of bad luck and a major external shock. 

Fundamentally, it’s a numbers game. Scotland has always had a smaller player base than almost all of its rivals, and until that issue is properly addressed and tackled then we are always going to feel the pinch more than others when we pick up a few injuries, and we are always going to struggle to create the sort of competitive environment required to really drive up standards.  

There is an argument doing the rounds that progress made in the under-20s programme during the last decade or so has raised expectations, and we shouldn’t get too uptight about this campaign because it is an aberration. That doesn’t really tally with a quick analysis of results over the period in question. Scotland did finish second in the Six Nations last year (although both England and France would have leap-frogged them if they had won their game in hand), but finished rock bottom of the table in the two previous years, and they finished fifth the year before that. 

They have only finished in the top half of the table once since the shift from Under-21 to Under-20 in 2008, when Zander Fagerson, Scott Cummings, Magnus Bradbury, George Horne, Rory Hutchinson and Blair Kinghorn helped the side to third place with home wins over Wales, Italy and Ireland in 2015. Only once before last year have Scotland finished an Under-20s Six Nations campaign with a positive points differential, clocking +2 in 2016. 

Meanwhile, Scotland’s best performance at the Under-20 World Championship was fifth in 2017, and since then they have finished 10th then 12th in 2019, the latter result meaning relegation to the second tier U20 Trophy competition, and Covid has ensured they won’t get the chance to win promotion back to the top table until at least next summer. Before 2017, Scotland finished eighth in the World Championship twice, ninth twice and 10th on five occasions. 

The bad years are not the aberrations. The good ones are. If we are being generous, we could say we are keeping pace with the top nations, but that is only true to the extent that they have not quite disappeared over the horizon yet. 

It is not all doom and gloom. There were some excellent individual performances during the recent campaign and the only game where they really were not at the races was against Italy in round three. They clearly made progress over the piece and could easily have beaten Wales in their final match of the campaign with a bit more composure at key moments. The spirit of the team is to be commended. 

The core of the young squad which finished last at the 2019 World Championship bounced back to beat Italy and Wales in the 2020 Six Nations and were genuinely competitive in their other three matches of that campaign. Since then, several members of that group having now gone on to full-time pro contracts and a few were set to have earned full Scotland caps this summer had Covid not intervened again.  

There is no reason why the 17 players from this year’s Six Nations cohort who will still be eligible next year can’t enjoy a similar upturn in fortunes. 

But until we can increase the critical mass of young players taking up the game and getting exposure to meaningful competitive rugby, then we are always going to be dealing with deep troughs and only modest highs – and the flow of players into the pro game is going to remain a trickle rather than a torrent. 

Super6 – the part-time professional league which was launched in 2019 by Scottish Rugby to bridge the gap between the club game and the pro game – needs to prove itself as part of the solution when it returns at the end of the month. But a strategy for widening the base below that should be the biggest priority.