HERIOT’S confirmed this morning that they have launched a new women’s section which will (at least initially) be comprised of players who walked away from Murrayfield Wanderers at the start of this season.
The Wanderers split occurred because the highly successful senior women’s team feared that they would no longer be able to operate as a leading light in the women’s game whilst tied to a club who are effectively homeless after being evicted from their traditional base on the Murrayfield back pitches by the SRU.
The Scotsman newspaper reported on Wednesday that Murrayfield Wanderers Women – who retain the registration to compete in SRU competitions – have been removed from the Tennent’s Women’s Premier League after failing to fulfil any league fixtures this season, meaning the division is now reduced to just seven teams.
Murrayfield Wanderers did retain their girl’s section after the split, but it appears unlikely at this stage that they will be able to raise a senior team next year.
Meanwhile, the breakaway group have been training at Inverleith, the home ground of Stewart’s Melville RFC (who are now a closely linked associate club of Heriot’s) during the last few months, and have managed to play a couple of friendlies. Heriot’s Ladies will now start training at Goldenacre on Tuesday and Thursday nights.
A decision is due on Monday as to which league Heriot’s Ladies will play in next year.
Rule 2.2 of the Women’s Championship Regulations for this transitional season  states that: “Teams seeking admission to the Women’s Championship or admission to the National Leagues from the North League or NDL must apply in writing to the Competition Secretary. Admission shall be subject to such conditions as the Competitions Committee may require. Successful applicants may be placed in an appropriate League or Division at the Competitions Committee’s sole discretion.”
Meanwhile, rule 4.3 states that: “Revised Women’s Championship Regulations, including provisions in relation to the composition of the leagues, the format of competition and the placing of Teams within the competition structure, shall be issued in advance of the 2019 women’s season.”
In the meantime, Rhona Shepherd, who made the initial approach to Heriot’s and led discussions with the Goldenacre outfit on behalf of the breakaway group, says that the club are focussing on the things they can control.
“We’ve got some friendlies lined up towards the tail end of this [calendar] year, and the brilliant thing is that the restructuring of the season means that we will go straight into the cup competition at the start of 2018, so it really won’t matter where we are in the leagues,” she explained.
“In terms of the league, we’ll end up where we end up – but this is really about the long-term journey, this is about really working to build a phenomenal platform for women’s and girl’s rugby – it is really exciting.”
Shepherd, who is set to join the Heriot’s Board as Head of Women’s and Girl’s Rugby, acknowledges that the optics of the split with Murrayfield Wanderers are not great, with the senior women’s section walking away from a long and fruitful association just as the club was at its most vulnerable.
Wanderers are now playing their home games at Roseburn Park, just across the perimeter fence from Murrayfield Stadium, and are renting a room in the adjacent ice-rink as a makeshift clubhouse.
“Leaving was not a decision we took lightly, not by any means,” stressed Shepherd. “I’ve been at Murrayfield Wanderers since 1995 and it is a long history. But thinking about developing women’s rugby in Scotland – and the passion that we all have at the club to do that – we felt we needed to make the tough decision to look for a new home.
“Basically, we’ve always been a club at the top of the women’s game in Scotland and very much want to remain there, but over the course of the end of last season and into summer we realised that it was increasingly unlikely that we could fulfil our full potential if we stayed where we were.”
“It’s really sad, but the greater good of growing the game – and our desire to contribute to that – had to take precedence. If that means that we get a hard time then we’ll have to take that, because we firmly believe in what we’ve done and the reasons we’ve done it.
“There was several meetings and it was the unanimous view of the senior section that this is what we had to do. The girl’s section decided that because of the uncertainty they would stay with Murrayfield Wanderers, and we fully supported them in that.
“I think it is a really stressful time for everyone, and particularly those at Murrayfield Wanderers, but I’d hate to think there was any great animosity between us and them. I phoned the president, Davie Young, as soon as the girls said they would like to look at alternatives. So, before we spoke to anyone else they knew what we were planning to do. We’ve been speaking regularly to the committee at Wanderers in what has been a difficult process.
“Over the years, many of the top women’s teams have had phone-calls from men’s clubs but I don’t think we had spoken to anyone during the last couple of seasons because we were very happy with where we were. It was only because we felt that we really couldn’t continue to fulfil our potential that we looked around.
One Scotland prospect in Sula Callendar has moved to Corstorphine Cougars in order to get regular competitive game time, while established international second-row Emma Wassell has been training with the Caledonia Academy whilst studying in Aberdeen. Shepherd insists that every effort is being made to ensure that any other national team hopefuls are getting all the support they need during this period while the club is in limbo.
“We’re speaking to each of them individually and liaising with [national head coach] Shade Munro to formulate the best way forward,” she said. “There’s not that many to worry about – probably three or four – and we will make a big effort to get them the right kind of rugby between now and the start of the Autumn Tests. But it is only a few weeks away until Scotland start their own preparatory games, I think the first one is in Italy on the weekend of 4th November.
The fact that Heriot’s are one of the clubs to have gained a Super 6 franchise is bound to raise a few eyebrows amongst those who fear that this new elite league, which is being launched in the men’s game at the start of next season, is going to lead to a ‘super-hoovering’ of resources to the detriment of Scottish rugby’s grassroots.
Both Shepherd and Heriot’s Director of Rugby Neil Meikle reject this link.
“The more relevant part for us is the welcome we’ve had at both clubs. We had meetings with a few different clubs, and a lot of it was the central location of Heriot’s, so we decided to take the conversation a bit further. And since we’ve started training at Inverleith, and being around Goldenacre as well, it has just been great,” said Shepherd.
“This has absolutely nothing to do with Super 6,” insisted Meikle. “It was, literally, a phone-call out the blue – and I thought it was a wind-up at first, to be honest.
“Super 6 is a performance league which has been created for men’s rugby only, so it doesn’t make any difference if we are Super 6 or not in terms of women’s rugby.
“Having a women’s section was something we were trying to do anyway. We did a study into it a number of years ago and the plan was to build it from the bottom up through our junior sections. We’re just fortunate enough that this fast-track solution has appeared which we would be crazy not to take. I think any other club – Super 6 or not – would do the same if presented with the opportunity.”