Celtic Challenge year two: Ten Talking Points

Stuart Bathgate assesses the recent campaign assess the progress made as well as the areas where there is still room for improvement

Jenny Maxwelll
Jenny Maxwell in action for Edinburgh in the opening match of this season's Celtic Challenge. Glasgow's Louise McMillan looks on. Image: © Craig Watson. www.craigwatson.co.uk.

1. LET’S start with the bottom line: year two of the Celtic Challenge made significant progress, both on and off the pitch, from year one. The number of teams doubled from three to six, and as a consequence there were more games, which helped build momentum round after round.

Last year  the Thistles a newly-formed side  represented Scotland and played against an Irish Combined Provinces XV and a Wales Development XV. Perhaps inevitably, there was a bit of an experimental feel about the whole thing, with the matches feeling too much like development exercises.

By contrast, this year, while that development function clearly remains, there is an acutely sharpened focus on the competition itself. 


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2. The branding of Scotland’s two teams as Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh has made a massive difference  not just during the Challenge, but also in terms of general awareness. One small but lasting example of that is the fact that anyone who goes on to the parent clubs’ websites – glasgowwarriors.org and edinburghrugby.org  and clicks on the fixture list now has an option to view the fixtures and results of the women’s teams.  

Naming the teams Edinburgh and Glasgow makes it far easier to tap into the existing supporter base than it was with the Thistles. And, from a standing start, the backroom staff at both professional clubs have worked assiduously to promote the women’s teams.


3. For the past two years, URC chief executive Martin Anayi has said that a women’s version of the league should be established, ideally sooner rather than later. That may still be a long way off, but the establishment of Glasgow and Edinburgh teams is an important step forward. 

As Anayi has said, any women’s URC would have to be economically sustainable, so in the short term the inclusion of South African teams may be too ambitious. The next step, then, could well be the inclusion of a couple of Italian teams. 

After that? It remains to be seen if Ireland have the desire to split the Clovers (who represent Connacht and Munster) and the Wolfhounds (Leinster and Ulster) into their separate provincial components and so form four teams. Given the wider problems in the Welsh game, any similar move with Brython Thunder and Gwalia Lightning is probably further off. 


4. Edinburgh found their feet in the competition very quickly. The star quality of Scotland centre Emma Orr was one big reason for that, but they were also astutely led on the pitch by captain and stand-off Sarah Denholm and off it by head coach Claire Cruikshank. They remain a work in progress, as was painfully laid bare in their draw at Hive Stadium against the Wolfhounds, when their chances of winning the title were effectively ended by losing two tries in the last three or four minutes. But a second-place finish after a record of four wins and two draws from seven games is an impressive return for a scratch side in which many players were new to this level.


5.  From a Scotland point of view, the return from a long-term knee injury of Jenny Maxwell was a particularly welcome sight in the Edinburgh ranks. The round-one game against the Warriors was the scrum-half’s first action in 20 months. 


 

6 While senior players such as Orr, Maxwell and Saracens lock Fi McIntosh had a big their part in Edinburgh’s successful campaign, others who have yet to feature at professional level rose to the occasion too. New Zealander Briar McNamara, for instance, was a joy to watch: mixing robust ball-carrying with some subtle offloading skills, the centre contributed just as effectively in defence. In the pack, back-row forwards Alex Stewart and Merryn Gunderson have had well-deserved call-ups to the Scotland squad off the back of their performances.


7. Glasgow lost all seven of their matches to finish bottom of the table, their only match point having come from a narrow home defeat by Brython Thunder. Their relative inexperience was a factor in the run of losses, and while the likes of Scotland forward Louise McMillan bolstered their ranks at times, they could have done with more seniority in other key positions.


8, Having said that, several younger players demonstrated considerable strength of character in adversity, back-row forward Holland Bogan being a case in point. And in the front row, loosehead prop Ailie Tucker was indefatigable in her ball-carrying efforts.



9. Attendances have been above expectations, but in terms of wider awareness, there is still a need for greater public visibility. The Celtic Challenge is run by the Scottish, Irish and Welsh governing bodies with support from World Rugby, but like the URC could do with a website that acts as a one-stop shop for information about the tournament. 


10. Let’s sort out the play-offs. The match between the teams that finish first and second in the regular season should be held last, and all play-off matches should take place in the home country of at least one of the teams. This year, Edinburgh and eventual champions Wolfhounds met in the penultimate round at Hive Stadium. And the round-seven dead rubber between Edinburgh and Clovers was at Parc y Scarlets.


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About Stuart Bathgate 1387 Articles
Stuart has been the rugby correspondent for both The Scotsman and The Herald, and was also The Scotsman’s chief sports writer for 14 years from 2000.

3 Comments

  1. “The next step, then, could well be the inclusion of a couple of Italian teams.”

    Well, meanwhile Benetton and Zebre played a short Latin Challenge against two Spanish franchises with the expectation of getting a call next year.

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