by STUART BATHGATE
WHEN Scotland played Ireland on Valentine’s Day 1993, it was the culmination of one journey and the start of another. For both teams, the game was the first official international after years of painstaking effort building up women’s rugby in their respective countries. For Scotland, the match – played at Raeburn Place in Edinburgh, the site of the first men’s international some 142 years earlier – was the real beginning of a dizzyingly swift ascent that ended five years later with their winning the Grand Slam.
The importance of the match to both sets of participants was made clear earlier this month when virtually every woman on duty that day turned up for a 25th-anniversary reunion at the Raeburn House Hotel adjoining the Edinburgh Accies ground, some of them travelling from as far away as Australia to be there.
For Scotland in particular, the significance of that game can hardly be over-emphasised. With no formal backing, and often in the face of outright hostility, a group of women, most of whom had not played the game before, first organised themselves into clubs, found coaches, and went on to reach the point of forming a national team. That they would then go on again to win the Grand Slam – a feat yet to be repeated – was all the more remarkable.
To honour the anniversary and get a first-hand account of how the team got to the point of playing their first match and then went on to win that 1998 Grand Slam, The Offside Line has spoken to three key figures from the period: scrum-half Sandra Colamartino, Scotland’s first captain and the scorer of both tries in the 10-0 win over the Irish in that first game; centre Kim Littlejohn, who succeeded her as skipper; and team manager Ramsay Jones.
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THE STORY BEGINS in the late 1980s, with two separate strands that would eventually be joined together to create a national women’s team: the formation of the first student sides, and the establishment of the first clubs.
My dad had taken me to watch rugby ever since I was about six or seven, but girls couldn’t join in. I used to watch Stirling County.
Then I went to Dundee art college, and there was no rugby available there. So it was really coming to Edinburgh, and seeing an advert that Sue [Brodie, future Scotland winger] put in for Liberton: women’s rugby available. So I joined when I was probably 21, about 1991.
It was staggering how everything happened so quickly from there. At Liberton there were two men who saw us training really badly, and thought they needed to help. They said they’d come and coach us, and that played quite a large role in getting a group of people with no idea to be able to play a match within six months. I think first of all they thought it would be great because they could pick up girlfriends, but actually within six months they had become really committed.
Then at Liberton we went from gathering people together to Sue asking Dick Vet for a friendly match – and that was Liberton Ladies’ first game. I think the score was 10-0 to Dick Vet, so we were obviously delighted that we were not annihilated. That was really the start of my career anyway.
Friendlies were better than nothing, of course, but what was really required was a league – which is where Littlejohn comes in:
When I was in my third year at uni I went as a Scotland rep down to see the England set-up, which was a bit more organised then. And I set up this first league, which had the backing of Scottish universities and was a students-only league.
By that time Sue had started Liberton, the first club in Scotland, I think, and she got in touch with me to say ‘I’ve got this club – can we be part of the league?’ I said ‘I’m really sorry, it’s only the universities that can take part’.
I lived just round the corner from Sue at that time, and she must have got the letter from me in the post and she stomped down the street and buzzed my buzzer and said ‘You can’t do this!’.
I said ‘All right, I’ll sort it out’, and I’m pretty sure they took part that year.
I played rugby for my first two years at uni, then played volleyball, because I didn’t seem to be progressing at rugby. But when I left uni and went back to playing rugby, everything was getting a wee bit more organised. Edinburgh Accies was the first club I played for, and I think that was the first year after Liberton moved to become Accies.
West of Scotland were also early trailblazers in the women’s game, and they and Accies went on to supply the first coaching team for Scotland: Sandy Carmichael, the former Scotland prop, from West; and Roddy Stevenson from Accies. Carmichael was soon succeeded by Mark Francis, who was based in Richmond and was therefore able to do a lot of scouting and recruitment of England-based players. With a league up and running, the next step for that coaching team was to arrange a friendly at Blackheath against an English XV.
We did do trials – everyone was invited – but Roddy was aware that the selection process was not thorough or official enough for it to be called an international.
I went to school with Roddy, and then when they were going down to London to play that non-international friendly – I think it was billed as an England Select against a Scotland Select – they didn’t even have a set of strips to play in. So he tapped me up – I think it was £500 for a set of playing strips, and I think I managed to channel it through the company I was with at the time, Caledonian Consultancy.
I still remember those jerseys – they were massive, thick, heavy, far too big for everyone. Nobody made jerseys of the right shapes and sizes like they do now.
But anyway, we got the jerseys and I decided to go down for the trip. And Roddy said ‘Just so’s you can come on for the anthems, pretend you’re the team manager’.
We arrived at the ground not in some luxurious coach, but in the back of a furniture van – that was the only transport we could get. Then I trooped on and lined up with the team. And I still can’t remember this, but at the reunion two of the players were adamant that Terry Waite, who had just been released from his years of captivity in Lebanon, was introduced to the teams before the game. I have no recollection of meeting Terry Waite.
Anyway, we line up, we do the anthems, then 20 minutes into the game prop Julie Taylor breaks her leg. So muggins goes in the ambulance to hospital with her and misses the rest of the game.
So we played that game, and it was never classed as the first international even though England put out their full side and beat us 70-odd nil. Welcome to international rugby. That must have been the autumn of 1992.
A few months later, Scotland were ready for a full international. Unsurprisingly, they did not want to begin their official history with another thrashing at the hands of the English, so the invitation was extended to Ireland, a team who, having also yet to play an official international, were at roughly the same stage of their evolution. The resultant 10-0 victory was a dream debut for one woman in particular.
That first day was a schoolboy fantasy – you’d come on as captain and score all the points. That was the absolute pinnacle in terms of having the best day ever.
Roddy just decided the week before to make me captain, and I was shocked and delighted. It was probably because I’d been captain for my club, and quite a few of the players came from my club, so people had got used to me talking in a game.
Our feeling was we had a chance to beat them – we would have known that England were miles ahead and Ireland were much more where we were. We definitely went into that game feeling we stood a chance – it was by no means obvious who was going to win.
As a group, we were very concerned about putting on a good show, not embarrassing ourselves or making people think that women can’t play rugby because of the standard of play. We definitely went into the game worrying about performing well in front of a crowd. That matters more than the result of the game.
I know that the pitch was chosen because it was the same pitch that had been used for the first men’s international.
I scored both tries – greedy. Never passed the ball enough, obviously.
I think I lasted as captain for a game or two – it became obvious that Kim was better suited to the job. As a centre she stood further back, and I had enough worries trying to pass the ball.
The teams that were:
Scotland: Sue Brodie (Edinburgh Academicals); Michelle Cave (Saracens), Kim Littlejohn (Edinburgh Academicals), Catriona Binnie (Cardiff), Debbie Francis (Richmond); Alison McGrandles (Brighton Polytechnic), Sandra Colamartino (Edinburgh Academicals); Alison Brand (West of Scotland), Ali McKenzie (Stirling University), Julie Taylor (Edinburgh Academicals), Lee Cockburn (Edinburgh Academicals), Donna Kennedy (Biggar), Lynn Gatherer (West of Scotland), Anny Freitas (Edinburgh Academicals), Brenda Robinson (West of Scotland). Replacements: Jenni Sheerin (Heriot-Watt University), Helen Paxton (West of Scotland), Shona McLeod (West of Scotland), Susan Grant (West of Scotland), Katherine Vass (Eaton Manor), Gillian Cameron (West of Scotland).
Ireland: Aoife Rogers (Blackrock); Annie Lees (Newcastle Gosforth), Ceara McNaughton (Cooke), Kim Donohoe (Blackrock), Cath Burgess (York); Joanne Moore (Blackrock), Clare Hoppe (Newcastle Gosforth); Trina Watt (St Albans) Zoe Fordham (York), Anne Parsons (Wasps), Therese Kennedy (Old Leamingtonians), Kathryn Henessy (Blackheath), Jill Henderson (Waterloo), Tanya Waters (Cooke), Cath Mullalley (Wasps). Replacements: Deane Nixon (Oxford University), Eileen McGrann (Bangor University), Deidre Fitzgerald (Blacklock) Niki Ordman (Cooke), Una Lavery (Biggar), Orla Byrne (Blackrock).
When we were involved in that first international in 1993 there was a lot of excitement around it. But it was almost inevitable. We were lucky that we happened to be the women who were in that first team, but it was always going to happen, the question was just when it happened.
It’s only looking back on it now that you realise how special it was to be involved in that. It was amazing, really. But at the time it was a stepping stone, and we just kept on going for women’s rugby.
When the internationals came in you were getting better players taking part, and it was much more serious, a big step up, with Sandy Carmichael, Roddy and then Mark as the coaches. Roddy was a PE teacher, Sandy obviously had a wealth of experience as a rugby player himself, and Mark brought a professional approach to everything.
It did feel quite significantly different, that game. I remember the game was faster – we were nowhere near complete rugby players at that point. But we were playing club rugby week-in and week-out, and the step up to that international was noticeable. I remember thinking ‘Oh my God, this is a bit higher-paced than we’ve been playing’.
A loss to Wales followed at Burnbrae near the end of the year, then a win over Ireland in Belfast close to the first anniversary of that initial match. The next vital step came in the summer of 1994, when, after the Netherlands pulled out of hosting the Rugby World Cup, Scotland took on the responsibility of organising it all at very short notice.
The hosts finished fifth, but perhaps more importantly the women’s game received a massive boost from all the favourable publicity generated by the tournament. It is important to remember, however, that the initial drive to establish rugby for women in Scotland received no official support, and also had to contend with a lot of active hostility.
Honestly, there was sexism everywhere. But within it there were pockets of guys that just felt ‘Why not?’ They were forward-thinking guys. Magnus Moodie at Edinburgh Accies was one of them, who put the sponsorship onto our shirts when no-one else would have done it.
In a clubhouse, it felt like at least half were very cynical and looking at you disapprovingly. There was that smaller group saying ‘Why not? It’s good for the game’, but maybe 50 per cent would just rather you went away and felt it was embarrassing to watch women getting all dirty.
There would be conversations like ‘Seriously, why would you do that? You could get a bruise on your face – why would you do that as a woman?’ That type of comment was quite normal.
But there were absolutely pockets of men who were very encouraging and went out of their way to say they were really happy to see women playing rugby.
Of course there was resistance in some quarters. You got three shades of opinion: the people who didn’t blink an eye, those who raised a quizzical eye and would do the usual jokes, and then there was the dinosaurs, for whom women should not play rugby. But then they would also argue that women shouldn’t play football or hockey or anything else, probably.
That’s the way it was. But the point about these trailblazers was they didn’t care. They had a passion to do it, to play the game, and nothing was going to step in their way. They weren’t oblivious to that sort of blinkered view – I just don’t think they cared about it. If anything, it would just galvanise them into wanting to do it all the more.
The male rugby players of the day – the Hastings, the Milnes – were brilliant. All these people were big supporters. And the referees of the time, like Jim Fleming and Johnny Bacigalupo, were right behind it too.
A 26-0 loss to England in that World Cup was Scotland’s heaviest defeat in those early years, and the team steadily became more competitive. By 1998, they were no longer merely on a par with Ireland and Wales, they were ready to take on the big guns.
They kicked off the year with a 15-0 win in Dublin, followed it with a 19-3 victory over France at Raeburn Place, and then went down to Cardiff and won 22-12. Officially the competition was the Home Nations Championship, which France had yet to join to make it the Five Nations, but all the teams recognised it as a five-way competition, and those three wins meant that only one team stood between Scotland and a Grand Slam.
The game against England at Inverleith – the ground where the men’s team had won the first leg of their 1925 Grand Slam – was a tense, low-scoring affair. Scotland were under heavy pressure for much of the game, but in the end, they won 8-5. It was the 21st March 1998: in five years and a month, the team had gone from complete novices to being the best side in Europe.
It was just an amazing season. To get the three other games under our belts before meeting England – we couldn’t have written the script better. It was the final match, at home, we had done so well, and we had to believe that we could do it. And we did. That was an incredible journey.
It’s one of these things where it’s the combination of people, and the planets aligning as well – everything coming together. Ramsay, Roddy and Mark were so professional. We used to turn up at international weekends and they had clearly been preparing for a significant amount of time. Everything had been planned out. It was incredibly professional. And they knew us so well. We were not the full deal when it came to rugby, because we hadn’t been playing long enough, but they filtered it down into the key things we needed to concentrate on to win each game.
It was just amazing. And it was that preparation and understanding that took us from where we had been in ‘93 through to that Grand Slam.
In the early days, you would hope that a weak link wouldn’t be exposed. But then we got to the stage where we had good strength across our first 15. There were maybe times when our bench wasn’t so strong, at least compared to the strength in depth that England had. But we had a good set of players. We did well.
I remember very specifically that first year, saying I would love to be part of the squad that went on to eventually win the Grand Slam for Scotland. I personally didn’t make it – I was injured so was just in the crowd that day – but to this day that was the absolute pinnacle of my rugby career. I didn’t need to be on the pitch to appreciate what we’d done that day in terms of watching that group of women go from just starting to take part to being quite good at it.
Fifty per cent of that day was absolutely mind over matter – the belief to win. We’d seen with David Sole that winning Grand Slams was so much in the head, and there was a determination that that Scotland team were going to win a Grand Slam that day. They were just getting up in the morning and that was going to be the outcome.
It was an absolutely marvellous thing to be part of and watch unfold. And even the camaraderie afterwards with England, who were literally saying ‘Well done you guys, that is amazing’. They were disappointed initially, but they appreciated what had happened in quite a short space of time.
The abiding memory of the five-year period was watching the squad improve so rapidly. We all peaked around the same time. Some of the coaches and players were absolutely world-class, and they all peaked at around the same time. That’s quite hard to replicate.
If you look at the men’s squad, that doesn’t happen very often, maybe every 20 years. We have to wait a long time between these moments, and I feel very lucky that my short time was during one of those peaks when we had this real group of players who were very talented and coaches who could bring that talent out.
That season I think Scotland beat eight different European countries. Consistency of players was one reason, with enough new players always coming in to keep pushing, and then Roddy and Mark as continuity. It all eventually paid off.
We started off losing to England by those 70-odd points in ‘92. And then beating them six years later with by and large the same group of players, when England were the best in the world. That was a good journey.
Sandra Colamartino now runs her own business, The Quirky Gift Company. After 15 years in Australia, Kim Littlejohn is back in Scotland and studying data analysis. Ramsay Jones moved into politics, and is now MD of Gen Comms Ltd, a public affairs company.