SCOTTISH RUGBY Chief Executive Mark Dodson and Chairman of the Board John Jeffrey have promised that supporting the women’s national team in their World Cup qualification bid will be a priority during the months ahead, as a key strand of an over-arching strategy currently being formulated within Murrayfield to help develop the women’s game at all levels.
Scotland’s dramatic win over Ireland on Saturday evening booked a spot in a final World Cup qualification tournament expected to be played in Dubai in January. They will compete against Samoa, Colombia and one of Japan, Kazakhstan and Hong Kong for a chance to go the global get-together in October.
If they make it to the main event, they will be the first Scottish team to reach the Finals since 2010, which would be an achievement with potential game-changing consequences in terms of boosting the profile and standard of the women’s game in this country.
Given that the women’s game in Scotland is essentially amateur, Jeffrey – speaking on Sunday, immediately after the SRU’s AGM – acknowledged that finding a way to minimise the sacrifice players have to make in order to represent their country is an issue which needs to be addressed immediately.
“It is important that we resource as much as we can to the women ahead of that final qualifier in January,” he said.“They are going to have take another three weeks off [work] to go to the tournament and they are going to build up to the tournament as well. It is a huge, huge ask for these girls.”
Meanwhile, Dodson pointed that it is not simply a case of throwing cash at the players, because in many cases the money on offer won’t be enough to justify squad members either leaving or taking a sabbatical from their current job.
“We’ve got to look at each of their situations,” he explained. “Some of those girls are accountants or vets, and they are not going to swap out of one career where they are established, to come and play professional sport when they maybe only have two or three years left.
“So, there’s the excitement around the women’s game but also the reality that we haven’t caught up to that point where a lot of women feel they can choose that career.
“It is not like women’s soccer where, now that big clubs are involved and money is coming in, women are choosing that career over careers they had before. Rugby is not there yet.
“I think some will [take the chance to play full-time], and if we feel it is the right thing to do and the girls are the right age, then this is the type of thing we will take forward.”
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When Scottish Rugby unveiled its strategy document for the next three years back in June, its three key strands wereL ‘well-being’, ‘winning’ and ‘women’. At the time, Dodson promised that a more detailed plan for the women’s game would be developed and published by “sometime in the Autumn”. That has not been delivered yet, but the Chief Executive promised that it remains an important work in progress.
“It is being written at the moment, and being worked on, and when it is ready it will come out,” he said. “It will cover everything from player acquisition at school from four years onwards through to the professional player. The problem is that it is like a jigsaw where we have certain pieces, but we don’t have others, so we are trying to build those missing pieces to get an overall picture.”
“It is not like we can just concentrate on the top end, or the bottom end, or some point in between – we’ve got multiple problems.”
Earlier in the day, during his presentation to the AGM, Dodson had spoken at length about the women’s game.
“I want to make a direct appeal to everyone in the room today to make sure your club directly addresses the issues facing the women’s game,” he’d said. “We’ll be investing significantly in the game across Scotland, but we need every club across the country to open its doors to women and girls.
“There is a need to build facilities or refurbish existing facilities to welcome them into your club.
“World Rugby, Six Nations, EPCR and the British and Irish Lions are all looking at ways in which the women’s game can be professionalised and expanded. Naturally, we are close to that debate, however we have far greater issues with our grassroots game and at school-age level.
“We are continuing to work on our overarching strategy for the women’s game and our thinking is bound to be influenced by the work undertaken at international and professional level.
““We will engage with the RFU to begin talks around any potential involvement in the English professional league. They’re keen that the Celtic nations don’t fall too far behind England and France, and globally Canada and New Zealand, and we’ll see where this leads.
“Essentially the work we are advancing now will take the next decade to fully roll out. Our ambition is to direct investment and support to our best players to retain parity with the best nations in the world while also outlining a plan to rebuild our player and club base from the bottom up.
“Whatever we do next has to be sustainable and realistic. However, it also has to be really ambitious as we see the sector of the game as a primary growth area for revenue and participation, as do most other European unions.
“But we can’t do this alone. We’ll need every club to be open to the idea of women’s and girls’ teams and that begins with a sincere welcome and is demonstrated by women being treated equally from day one.
“We plan to incentivise clubs that make the most progress and eventually look at professional teams under the umbrella of our pro teams in Glasgow and Edinburgh.”
Asked after the meeting if running a women’s version of Super6 might be an option, Dodson explained: “One of the problems is that the Super6 clubs are not in the areas where our players are, but you may end up having some kind of Super4.
“We’ll have to think about it and I don’t have the answers yet, and neither does Gemma [Fay – Head of Girls / Women’s Performance Rugby], Stevie [Gemmell – Scottish Rugby’s Technical Director] or Jim [Mallinder – Head of Performance Rugby]. What do you do to crystalise the players, to get them all in the same area and playing together in order to raise standards?
“One of the things we’ve talked about is regional training centres to give them the ability to be coached, and to do strength and conditioning, near where they live. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? But when you have 30 women who live all over the UK it is quite hard. So, we have to think hard about how we do that, and that’s what we’re doing at the moment.”