Liam and Ben the Co-Captain men
A co-captaincy structure has been chosen by Head Coach Kenny Murray for every Scotland U20 game so far in 2023. In the current World Rugby Trophy in Kenya, it’s Liam McConnell and Ben Afshar with a hand each on the reigns.
Whilst Liam was a Co-Captain in the 2023 Under-20 Six Nations alongside the injured Duncan Munn, this is the first time scrum-half Ben has been in the role.
“It’s been a massive honour to captain my country and I’ve really enjoyed it,” he said. “Obviously it’s unfortunate that Duncan isn’t here.
“In the Under-20 Six Nations I did a little bit of leadership stuff around the attack, so I’ve already had a little bit of experience.
“I was captain at Merchiston School in my last year of school, but all of the rugby was cancelled due to COVID. So I did do a lot of the leadership stuff that year with the hope of eventually getting a game but it never happened.
“This was my first time actually captaining on the field. We were supposed to have two games in the summer before I left school, but then there was a COVID outbreak and then both got cancelled which was annoying.”
Only 18 when given the role, Liam feels he has grown as a leader as a result: “I think I’ve come on a little bit. At the start I had a lot to work on, I could sometimes get a bit frustrated and things like that, but I think I’ve got a lot better at understanding people more.”
Splitting the duties between a forward and a back is increasingly common, and Ben also notices personality differences between the two.
“I’m definitely a little bit calmer than Liam! I think we balance out quite well in that aspect. In training, we’re splitting the duties. I do a lot of the attack stuff, Liam does more of the defence stuff.”
Liam added: “I think it helps having a back and forward, when we do our unit stuff we’re not always both there. The backs and forwards are probably only together about 50% of the time, so having a leader in both groups is helpful.”
The young Scots are two from two in their pool so far, defeating Zimbabwe and USA. A key pillar of their success has come in set-pieces, making lots of ground from mauls and winning several penalties at the scrum, which back row McConnell said was worked on before the trip to Nairobi.
“Before the tournament started when we were back in Scotland, we hoped we would have a more dominant set-piece so we worked on that a lot before we came out here. It’s going well for us, it worked well against Zimbabwe and then it was really good in the second half against USA so we just need to keep building on that.
“The first 50 minutes against Zimbabwe we played really well, and then we just had a 15-20 minute period where we leaked some tries, and that sort of lead on into the USA game. We didn’t play great in the first half and then we found a way in the second half.”
For Afshar, it’s inarguably been an excellent campaign so far. With four tries to his name in the two games, his contributions from the boot meant he scored half of Scotland’s 40 points himself in the USA game.
“I feel like I’ve just been in the right place at the right time to be honest! There just seems to be a bit of space around the breakdown. And obviously I’ve done a bit of kicking before, and with Richie (Simpson) not being here and having Andy (McLean) just focusing on playing at 10 I’ve taken that role up and it seems to be going okay so far.
“In the Zimbabwe game, in that first 50 minutes our attack was just clinical, our support play was good. And then in the USA game we were just a bit slow at the start, we were making opportunities, but we just weren’t finishing them. I think if we can be clinical again, we should score lots of tries in the last two games.”
Uruguay comes next for Scotland U20 tomorrow. Both sides go into the game with a 100% record from the trophy so far, and Liam expects their toughest challenge yet.
“From what we’ve seen of Uruguay, they’re pretty physical and they look like they have some decent structure around the forwards and the set-piece, but we have some areas that we definitely think we can get the upper hand on them.”
Conditions in Kenya have been tough, playing at a high altitude in high temperatures, but Ben believes preparations back home have put the squad in a great place.
“We’ve prepared well for the tournament, we did a lot of work in the environmental chambers for the altitude and the heat.
“The first game was okay, we were lucky because it was 10am and there was cloud so it wasn’t too hot, but it was a little bit tougher in the USA game because there was no shade on the pitch, you’re in the sun at 2pm in 26 degrees heat so it was quite tough but I think the boys really stuck in there.”
A long journey awaited most Scotland fans who committed to supporting Scotland in Kenya, and those who have attended the games have made themselves heard. The vocal backing has been noticed and appreciated by Liam.
“The people that have come along have been really up for it, you can here little groups in the stand shouting. Four or five of the boys have their parents out so we can hear them, there was a group with a Scotland flag in the stand for the USA game and that really helps.”
A win against Uruguay would give Scotland the opportunity to compete for the Trophy in a final and qualify for next year’s Under-20 World Rugby Championship, something than Ben says is at the forefront of the players’ minds.
“We’re here to win the trophy, I think that’s the top goal of our squad. We want to go back to Scotland with that accomplishment. For a lot of the boys, this is their last year of U20. Even when Jerry (Blyth-Lafferty) left, he was saying ‘let’s just win it so that next year we’re back in the Championship.”