Scotland will field their youngest ever team in Saturday’s final European Championship tie against France in Avignon but head coach Steve McCormack says it must be seen as a positive, not a problem.
Scotland, who have suffered numerous withdrawals over the campaign, will fly just 18 players to Nice on Thursday morning with uncapped second rower Gavin Grant, an Aberdonian who plays for Coventry Bears, called up on Wednesday to replace forward Johnny Walker.
The average age of the squad for France is just 22, with five 19-year-olds among twelve players aged 22 or younger. McCormack could give up to three more debuts with Grant joining fellow uncapped players Sam Brookes and Finlay Hutchison on the plane. Five youngsters have already made their senior bows in the first two games of the tournament.
“This is all about the long-term good for Scotland Rugby League,” said McCormack. “Ten of the 18 players have come through our pathway from the Under-18s, 19s or Students. We’re developing these players for the future. We will have a really young side in France. We would prefer to have had a bit more experience but it’s been brilliant to see these young players come through from the Under-19s and I’m proud of how they’ve handled themselves.
“This tournament was crying out for us to give opportunities to young lads as it’s the only year we can do it – we can’t do it against England, Australia and New Zealand next year and we can’t do it in the 2017 World Cup. So we made a conscious decision to increase our player pool this year and the young players have really stepped up.”
Scotland used a similar tactic in 2011 when, short of most of their Super League and NRL stars, as they have been this year, they drafted in a dozen youngsters. Four of those went on to play in the 2013 World Cup and are mainstays of the national team now. Among them is David Scott, the winger from Stirling, who has spent the past three years playing in England’s Championship.
“David Scott is a great example,” explains McCormack. “He’s been arguably our best player over the first two games of this tournament. We gave him his debut against Ireland in Glasgow four years ago and he’s gone on to play in a World Cup quarter-final and win a European Champions medal. These lads should use Davie as an inspiration.”
McCormack knows Whitehaven forward Brookes from his time in the Wigan Warriors Academy where the coach now works. “Sam is a good kid and has had a couple of seasons of Championship rugby behind him now. He can play at loose forward, which allows us to move Danny Addy into the halves at any stage should we want to.”
At 24, Grant, a former Scotland and Great Britain Students representative, will be among the oldest players, albeit as inexperienced as many other squad members. The Scotland team beaten 22-24 by Ireland had just 91 caps between them. From that, McCormack has lost skipper Danny Brough (20 caps), Ben Hellewell (12) and Johnny Walker (6), replaced with Edinburgh Eagles duo Scott Plumridge and Hutchison, Grant and Brookes, with one appearance between them.
“Gavin Grant is the type of character we want,” says Scotland team manager Mark Richardson. “He only got the call on Tuesday night when we lost Johnny and he was able to get his things together and travel up from Berkshire where he lives to train with us on Wednesday afternoon. It will be a great experience for him.”
Scotland squad: Danny Addy (Bradford Bulls), Sam Brookes (Whitehaven), Harvey Burnett (unattached), Lewis Clarke (Edinburgh Eagles), Sonny Esslemont (Hull KR), Dale Ferguson (Bradford Bulls), Gavin Grant (Coventry Bears), Richard Harris (Warrington Wolves), Liam Hood (Salford Red Devils), Finlay Hutchison (Edinburgh Eagles), Ben Kavanagh (Widnes Vikings), Corbyn Kilday (Central Queensland Capras), Joe McClean (Gloucs All Golds), Scott Plumridge (Edinburgh Eagles), David Scott (Doncaster), Oscar Thomas (London Broncos), Shane Toal (Barrow), Alex Walker (London Broncos).