'Watching what Rory has achieved is a driver for me' - How Scotland's new co-captain is inspiring the next generation

Liam McConnell has a bright future - and he is hoping to follow in the footsteps of Scotland's Rory Darge
©Scottish Rugby/SNS

A lot of the talk in Scotland and beyond this week has been about a 23-year-old back-row in the shape of Rory Darge being selected as a co-captain for his country ahead of the Guinness Men’s Six Nations.

Also this week, 19-year-old back-row Liam McConnell was named skipper of his country and the Edinburgh Rugby academy man will lead the under-20s into their own Six Nations.

There are high hopes for McConnell from many in Scottish Rugby and, during a turbulent time for the under-20s, he has looked at home at that level since he came into the set-up just before his 18th birthday in the summer of 2022.

The former James Gillespie’s High School in Edinburgh pupil came up through the youth ranks at Boroughmuir and has also played for the Meggetland club’s Bears part-time professional outfit and the Future XV in the Super Series Championship.

"Liam graduated from a successful under-18 group at Boroughmuir where his qualities as a player and as a leader were evident,” Bears head coach and former Scotland cap Graham Shiel told TRU.

"At that stage, it was a natural path for Liam to be aligned to Boroughmuir Bears to compete in the Super Series competition which he took in his stride. The opportunity afforded an accelerated progression for Liam and his development through his first season at that level was impressive, showing excellent behaviours and an intensity to learning in a rugby environment with laser focus.

"Liam has continued this path in terms of progressing and meeting every challenge head on. He is an impressive young man who is respected enormously by all at Boroughmuir and a great example to all young players of what can be achieved with drive, dedication, hard work and - to be fair to him - a decent amount of talent."

Former professional second-row Alex Tools, currently academy and performance manager with Boroughmuir who works with the Bears’ forwards, has also been impressed by McConnell.

"Liam’s journey at Boroughmuir and beyond has been nothing short of impressive," Toolis explained.

"Since coming through Boroughmuir’s Player Development Pathway (PDP), he has excelled and has become a natural-born leader. In a three-month span in 2022, he captained the club’s under-18s in a Cup final when he was named player of the match and started in his first Bears’ game which is no easy task.

"Liam’s transition into senior rugby has been seamless, making an instant impact. A very coachable player, who engages well with his peers and coaches. He leads by example both on and off the rugby pitch.

"He has set a great example for all players in the academy who desire to play high levels of rugby in Scotland."

‘Watching what Rory Darge has achieved is a driver for me’

Back in February 2020, TRU featured an interview with Rory Darge when he was 19 and captaining the Scotland under-20s in the Six Nations.

Fast forward four years and McConnell takes inspiration from what the former has done.

"Watching what Rory has achieved by age 23 is pretty impressive and is definitely a driver for me," McConnell said.

"His journey through the under-20s and then getting a breakthrough with Glasgow Warriors and Scotland shows myself and the other young boys in the current U20s squad that there is a pathway and it is possible.

"He is only a few years older than me and it only really took a few games for Glasgow for him to show his quality and break into the Scotland squad a couple of years ago, so what he has done inspires me.

"I have learnt a lot since I came into the under-20s squad in the summer of 2022. All of the time since then I have been trying to build up my physical attributes because the position I like to play in at six demands that.

“Also, in the environment at Edinburgh, I have just tried to learn from everyone around me and there are so many experienced guys there.

"Defensively in terms of carrying, in terms of lineout work and things like that, I have tried to get better and better and a big help is watching how guys at Edinburgh like Luke Crosbie and Sam Skinner and others who play a similar position to me do things.”

‘We are definitely in a better place than we were this time last year’

Scotland start their under-20 Six Nations campaign away to Wales on February 2 and will want to put a frustrating 2023 behind them.

Last year, the under-20s lost four out of five games in the Six Nations, including an 82-7 humbling to eventual tournament winners Ireland at Scotstoun.

And then, at the World Trophy in Kenya last summer, they were handed a shock 37-26 defeat by Uruguay to end their hopes of promotion back to the top table World Championship event.

An under-20s team - under the Future XV name - was then entered into the part-time professional Super Series Championship domestic event between July and November.

However, the Futures lost all 12 games, conceding 543 points in the process.

After he named his 35-man squad for the tournament on Tuesday, head coach Kenny Murray said: "We are definitely in a better place than we were this time last year and we are closing the gap on the teams above us, but we still have an awful lot of work to do with our pipeline to be able to give us a larger number of players to pick from at this level.

"We are closer to the other teams, but the teams that are ahead of us are not staying static, they are continually moving forward.

"We have been trying to get guys ready to play the likes of France [who are the age-grade world champions and come to Edinburgh on February 9] and I watched the European Cup at the weekend and there were under-20 players [from other nations] playing all over at that level.

"We have a lot more [under-20s] guys in those [professional] environments now, but the challenge we have is that we only have two pro teams."