Celtic Challenge preview: Edinburgh on brink of top-three play-offs as Warriors seek first win

Capital club captain Sarah Denholm is confident her squad can continue to improve as they go deeper into the tournament

Sarah Denholm
Edinburgh captain Sarah Denholm addresses her squad after their Celtic Challenge win over Gwalia Lightning. Image: Jim Parsons/Edinburgh Rugby.

EDINBURGH have enjoyed a successful start to life in the Celtic Challenge, winning three of their four games so far to stand within touching distance of a place in the top-three play-offs. And the good news, according to their captain, Sarah Denholm, is that they are getting better by the week.

The capital club go into tomorrow’s home game against the Clovers – the last regular-season match before the play-offs – in second place in the six-team table. A win or a draw against the Irish side will guarantee that top-three place, and even a defeat could be good enough provided Gwalia Lightning fail to beat the Wolfhounds.

Last Sunday’s bonus-point win against Gwalia in Cardiff was a crucial result for Edinburgh, who fought back from 19-15 down to win 20-19 thanks to a late try from Scotland prop Panashe Muzambe. They could have wrapped up the victory a lot sooner after a dominant first half in which they scored three tries and should have scored two more, but Denholm was pleased by the strength of character they showed to recover both from those set-backs and from the home team’s second-half recovery.  

End of an Era: Heriot’s Rugby icon Stewart Mustard calls time on 26-year career

Six Nations: Gregor Townsend backs Kyle Rowe to withstand Welsh aerial bombardment

Breadalbane Finance Community Rugby Story Of The Month … Linlithgow

“This competition has been really exciting, because we’ve got better each week,” the stand-off told The Offside Line. “Individuals have come in and out, but a large core squad has been the same, and you can see those connections starting to build. People are learning what our strengths are and how we play as a squad.

“The first half on Sunday was the first time that has really clicked for us – all 15 on the pitch were getting ball and making an impact. 

“We made it difficult for ourselves at times – having a try held up and another knocked on in the first half wasn’t ideal for us. In the second half I don’t think we woke up as much as we needed to, especially after they scored back to back, but to push through and get that try at the end was really positive for us. We were pretty chuffed with getting that bonus point. 

“I think the more time we get together the better. And I think this competition will get better as we get more time together.

“The Clovers game will be very competitive – we’ve mirrored each other’s results and I also think we play in a similar way. So I think it will be a close one.

“We’re looking forward to Saturday and then hopefully getting into that top three and doing some damage there.”

Last year’s Celtic Challenge, in which Scotland were represented by the Thistles, saw Francesca McGhie graduate to the senior national squad and make a big impact during the Six Nations. This year, Denholm is sure that several of her team-mates will be in contention for a call-up given their performances.

“I think the most exciting thing is that there’s people popping up all over,” she said. “Molly Poolman (the Watsonians tighthead prop) has been phenomenal. Adelle Ferrie (the Corstorphine Cougars lock) was great on Sunday – she got her first start.

“And I think in the backs, Cieron Bell (Edinburgh University wing) has scored four tries from four games. But there’s people popping up all over the place, so that’s exciting.

“I think our back row has been phenomenal as well. You can’t not mention Alex Stewart and Merryn Gunderson,” Denholm said of the Corstorphine flankers. 

“It’s good for us to be competing at this level, so that if any of the girls do go on to get into the Six Nations camp or even further down the line getting into the squad, that they’re actually a bit more ready to be there and they’re ready to compete, not just as a tackle bag.” 

Denholm herself was first capped back in 2019 against Wales, and made a second appearance the following year against Spain. Her university work and a couple of injuries kept her out of the Scotland set-up over the following three years, but now she is studying for an MA in performance psychology that she believes is complementary to her rugby. She hopes she can again contend for a place in Bryan Easson‘s squad, but knows it will be tougher than ever.

““Obviously the competition is getting better and better, and getting back into that squad is more challenging than it was four years ago. The way that I frame it is to play the best rugby that I can. If that is in this competition, then I’m happy with that.

“But if there is an opportunity to play for the national team, I would definitely grab it with both hands. I’ve been in that environment before and I would be really excited to get back in it again.

“I had ankle issues for a while – I had a fracture and then I did the ligaments in the other one, back to back. But the main break, to be honest, was more to focus on uni. Covid had happened and after that my priorities were not rugby. Now I feel I’m really going for it, because rugby is at the forefront of what I want to do.”


Denholm has played for Edinburgh University for a few years now, but like a number of others in both her own squad and the Warriors’ she began playing at Biggar – the club where Scotland’s record cap-holder Donna Kennedy also started out. “The numbers are pretty crazy. Over in Glasgow there’s Ailie Tucker, Kirsty Ritchie, Alison Orr  and Kaylee Fraser.

“Over here we’ve got me, Rachel Phillips, Emma Orr. There’s loads of girls that have come through – a lot of those girls were playing from 10 and 11, and some of us were in the minis as well. 

“My brother Alex is coaching the under-18s at the moment and they’re flourishing. They’ve just won back-to-back cups at under-16 and under-18, and the skill level of the girls there is fantastic. There are a couple of girls down there playing 9 and 10 who I’m worried about already, and they’re 16.

“It’s a huge credit to the club and the coaches, and I think it shows that if you put the investment in, the girls will take every lesson and they can easily be playing in the national team in a few years.

“Emma Orr has just got player of the year and she’s still only 20. It’s really exciting to watch her career and I think it’s just the start. She’s been playing like that since she was about 15.

“It’s a super-amazing club and I’m incredibly grateful. I think we all owe our rugby careers to them.

“Obviously the university has developed me massively as well, but the roots are super-important. I think a lot of clubs can look at that set-up and copy it.”

Denholm and Emma Orr will be at 10 and 13 as usual against the Clovers, while Muzambe, who came off the bench in Cardiff, is promoted to the starting line-up. The one other change made by head coach Claire Cruikshank sees Leia Brebner-Holden make her first start at scrum-half.

Scotland international scrum-half Jenny Maxwell and Saracens lock Fiona McIntosh are on the bench alongside potential debutant Samaanther Taganekurukuru of Stirling County.

Glasgow coach Chris Laidlaw, whose team are bottom of the table after losing all four of their games to date, has made seven changes for the away game against Brython Thunder. Chloe Brown, Megan Hyland and Giselle Chicot all make their first starts, while the other alterations from last week’s loss to the Clovers see Rhea Clarke, Claudia McLaren, Pearl Kellie and Roma Fraser all return to the 15. Alison Orr is in line to make her debut off the bench.

Thunder have also lost all of their matches to date and like the Warriors have no chance of making the top three – although they are a point ahead of the Scottish side having earned a losing bonus against Edinburgh.


Edinburgh (versus Clovers at Hive Stadium, Saturday 12.30pm): N Marlow; N Flynn, E Orr, L Thomson, C Bell; S Denholm (captain), L Brebner-Holden; P Muzambe, M Whitehouse, M Poolman, A Ferrie, N Logan, M Gunderson, A Stewart, F Walker. Replacements: A Ronald, P Fletcher, K Lindsay, F McIntosh, S Taganekurukuru, J Maxwell, B McNamara, H Walker.

Glasgow Warriors (versus Brython Thunder at Stadiwm CSM, Colwyn Bay, Saturday 2.30pm): C McDonald; R Fraser, C McLaren, G Chicot, P Kellie; C Ainsworth, R Clarke (co-captain); A Tucker, N Simpson, C Brown, E Thomson, E Turner (co-captain), H Bogan, I Hannay, M Hyland. Replacements: A Sutcliffe, D Lee, K Fraser, E Williamson, A Orr, L Winter, M McDonald, L MacRae.

Six Nations: Gregor Townsend backs Kyle Rowe to withstand Welsh aerial bombardment

About Stuart Bathgate 1438 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.