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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
Brendan Fanning

Ireland's U-20 success highlights plight of game in Wales and Scotland

Ireland head coach Richie Murphy with the trophy after the U20 Six Nations match against England at Musgrave Park. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

If you were focused on the gripping battle in Musgrave Park on Sunday evening, you probably missed the carnage elsewhere. Between them, the under 20s of Scotland and Wales conceded more than a hundred points to Italy and France respectively. For good measure, the Scots were at home.

Not that their away form was uplifting. Earlier in the Championship campaign, Ireland put 82 points on them in Glasgow. By close of business they had a points difference of -144, with Wales on -88. This is not just a blip, this is an alarm bell that can be heard in the senior house of the Six Nations as clearly as its age grade equivalent.

For Scotland, the tremor has been constant over the last five seasons in which they have propped up the table. As Italy have grown stronger, the Scots have fallen further off the pace. And you could see that coming from way back.

In what feels now like another lifetime, we remember going over to Edinburgh to interview Willie Anderson when he was assisting Matt Williams with the Scotland senior squad. The picture he painted of the development side of the game there was devoid of colour. Not a splash. Having been centrally involved in setting up the IRFU Academy here – the precursor to the provincial models – he couldn’t get his head around Scotland’s apparent indifference to developing the next generation.

In Wales, this will have to take second place to that country’s Emergency General Meeting in Port Talbot this weekend. Depending on how that one pans out, there will either be a raft of new faces driving the big red bus or the garage will have the shutters down.

If it’s the latter, then the Welsh Government would have to wade in and the game would officially become a basket case. If it’s the former – which will require a 75 per cent voting majority – then it’s a simple matter of finding enough men and women with the combination of commercial and rugby sense, energy, foresight and drive to haul the bus out of the ditch and back on the road. Done and dusted by summer, you reckon, when Warren Gatland is putting the finishing touches to his World Cup squad?

Whatever about the misogyny and mismanagement in the Welsh Rugby Union, on paper they have a platform that should be capable of launching a rocket every few seasons.

At the top of their schools game is a 13-team national competition where many of those involved already have a tie-in to the professional regional structure. At under 15 level their Dewar Shield is a national institution and directs players into regional under 16 sides. The WRU has not far off 100 personnel working on the development side of the game, which turns over stg£94.5m. It’s hardly a cottage industry.

Listening to national under 20 coach Byron Hayward, however, after the hammering in France he looked, and sounded, broken.

“You look at these two teams and it’s hard to believe they’re the same age,” he said. “"Unfortunately, playing in a competition like our boys are playing in at the moment, we have to be realistic and it's not an excuse, but it's not up to the standard of what we see here tonight where we have (French) boys playing Top 14 rugby week in, week out. That's something we need to look to address.”

The competition he’s referring to is the Welsh club Premiership, which will go up from 12 to 14 clubs next season. In standard this would roughly be on a par with Division 1A of the All Ireland League. Hayward’s 20s would all be tied into regional Academies and farmed out to the Premiership for game time. Sound familiar?

To continue the similarity with Ireland, acting WRU chief executive Nigel Walker is pushing for reduction, not expansion, making an eight-team Premiership with closer links to the four professional regions. He has a battle on his hands. This is what the IRFU’s David Nucifora floated back in 2018, only to be sunk by clubs who feared they would never leave the harbour.

Perhaps the key difference is in the quality of player coming out of the schools system, where it is the schools themselves – and not the IRFU or the provinces – who set the pace. And unlike Wales, who develop players only to see a bunch of them disappear across the Severn Bridge on scholarships to third level institutions in England, most of our lot stay put and scramble for places in the provincial Academies.

This penny is dropping in Scotland, as pointed out to them by Nigel Carolan – formerly of Ireland under 20s, Connacht and currently with Glasgow.

“It’s all a by-product of getting them early but it will come in Scotland once they get the right foundations in place and the investment is put in the right area, which is the young lads. There’s no point investing in the middle and hoping that the 20s are going to win. You have to invest in them as 15 year-olds and then you’ll get a product that will come through and rise to the top eventually.”

The key word there is eventually. Even with the appetite to throw financial and human resources at the problem it’s not like switching on a light. The same goes for Wales. It’ll be a while before the room brightens up. In the meantime, the Six Nations under 20s will have to put up with two passengers getting dressed in the dark.

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