WATSONIANS were the team to beat in the top flight of Scottish women’s club rugby last season, topping the regular season table and seeing off Stirling County 39-0 in their last four tie, before sweeping aside Hillhead Jordanhill 67-0 at Myreside in a one-side final to lift the title.
Meanwhile, Corstorphine Cougars also made the play-offs last term with a third place finish and were just edged out 24-17 in their semi-final by Hills. They were then beaten 26-20 by the Glasgow side again in the Sarah Beaney Cup semi-final, but from the outside you could sense that something impressive was happening at the club, their form even seeing Fiona Cooper earn a move to Wasps.
And they have built on those performances this term, winning 10 of their 12 regular season matches including a 27-20 away triumph at league toppers Stirling County to finish second in the table, while Watsonians, with a new head coach in the shape of Bruce Millar, and rebuilding without experienced players like Sarah Jones and Alice King, finished third.
Those placings give Corstorphine home advantage this weekend and, with a pre-match lunch in the clubhouse and their men’s 1st XV taking on Langholm in a top of the table clash in East League Division One too, it should be a busy day at Union Park.
The hosts go into the game having lost to County 19-15 at home last Saturday while Watsonians have not played since December 3rd when they dashed Hills’ play-off hopes with a 35-31 triumph.
Cougars will be led into this tie by Emma Turner and she will be supported by vice-captains Emma Dunbar and Kiyomi Honjigawa.
Full-back Honjigawa, 31, used to be a footballer, but switched to rugby a few years back and has never looked back.
“I used to really enjoy playing football and growing up in Dalkeith, I played from primary school level all the way up into my late teens,” she explained. “When I was 13, I joined Musselburgh Windsor and then I went on to play for Hearts as well.
“I played on the wing or at full-back, but as I got a bit older I was told I was a bit rough for the sport, so maybe rugby was always in the back of my mind!
“After a few years break from sport, I took up rugby with Liberton in their inaugural season after a friend persuaded me to come along and I learned all the basics through the help of Craig Young, Gary Reilly and Gordon Shields. We also joined up with Melrose and played some competitive games.
“I then decided to take the leap and join Corstorphine and have played for the club ever since.”
A lot – for the good – has changed in women’s rugby in this country in recent years and the Cougars have been built around a solid batch of players since Honjigawa joined with head coach Eric Jones has been the real driver of that.
“Eric has changed the women’s side of the club along with his right-hand man Gav Paul,” Honjigawa, who is mechanical engineer, said. “When I first joined there were not many girls training in the depths of winter and now we are putting out a 1st XV and a 2nd XV every week who are really competitive in their respective leagues.
“The women’s section really is going from strength-to-strength. The culture and the team spirit we have amongst the women here is brilliant and it helps that we are all great friends which has helped us get to where we are.
“The league has been hugely competitive this season and there have been a few shock results which has kept things very open.
“We feel that we have really built on what we have achieved last season, continuously improving as a squad with a good blend of experienced and younger players.
“We can never underestimate Watsonians. Matches are always tight and I know this one will be no different. We are focusing on putting in the performance we know that we are capable of.”
Meanwhile, Julie Lyons, who is originally from Skehana in Galway in Ireland, is only in her second season with Watsonians, but has packed plenty into that time. The full-back won the Premiership with the Myresiders and earned a runners-up medal in the Sarah Beaney Cup in 2021-22 and has become an important player for them.
“I only moved over to Edinburgh to study in February 2021, so moving to a new place as the pandemic was still going was a bit daunting, but I plucked up the courage to join Watsonians and I’m so glad I did,” the 24-year-old, who played rugby for Monivea, the National University of Ireland Galway and Galwegians back home in between Gaelic football and camogie stints, said.
“Last year we had a good season and then a lot of things changed in the summer before this campaign. Bruce came in as head coach and a number of more senior players departed, so we knew that 2022-23 was going to be a bit of a step into the unknown with a new-look squad.
“Our aim from day one was to make sure we made the league play-offs and we have done that so we can now build from here.
“We have shown on our day that we can compete with any team in the division when we get it right and we have been training hard for this match. Corstorphine have done very well this season, so we know we’ll need a good performance if we want to progress.”
This season Watsonians – who also won the top flight title in 2019-20 – are captained by Kiwi Briar McNamara, who starred in last year’s Premiership final alongside Fran McGhie, while American Kaeli King is vice-captain.
“They are different characters in terms of personality, but they work really well together and they help to bring the best out of the other players around them,” Lyons, who is now working as a clinical associate applied psychologist, explained.
“Briar leads by example on the pitch and is such a good player at finding space from the midfield and Kaeli is a bit more vocal, but being in the forwards she also likes to lead by her actions.
“I think over the last few month we have built up close bonds as a squad and these games like Saturday are the ones you want to be involved in.”
Corstorphine and Watsonians have only met once so far this season, the former coming out on top 24-19 thanks to a late try at Myreside in November.
The second semi-final between Stirling and Heriot’s Blues, who finished fourth in the regular season table, is due to take place at Bridgehaugh on Saturday, January 21st, with the final set to be on the weekend of January 27th/28th/29th.
The Lowdown –
Corstorphine Cougars v Watsonians
Venue: Union Park @ 1.30pm
Corstorphine Cougars: K Honjigawa; L Young, A Clark, M Welsh, R Laurenson; T Griffith, P Benson; E Dunbar, L Park, K Fraser, L Kidd, A Ferrie, M Gunderson, L Glendinning, E Turner©. Subs: L Green, D Anderson, Z Turner, L McGrotty, R Bestwick.
Watsonians: J Lyons; S Macey, F McGhie, B McNamara©, A Hughes; S Clements, R Law; A Tucker, K King, C Abernethy, A Swan, J Menday, F Walker, G Laverty, M Poolman. Subs: K Craig, S Kearley, C Bain, I Bendall, M Nelson.
Key battle: Emma Turner versus Molly Poolman.
What the coaches say –
“We’re looking forward to hosting Watsonians in what will no doubt be a tough game. It was good to get a run out against Stirling last week to work on our match fitness and get the Christmas break cobwebs out the way …” – Eric Jones (Corstorphine Cougars)
“We lost at home to Cougars and they’ll be even tougher to beat on their own patch. However, we’ve been able to select from almost our full squad which has been a rarity this season. We’ve trained well over the past two weeks and feel confident heading into what will no doubt be a huge challenge …” – Bruce Millar (Watsonians)
Verdict: Corstorphine are used to being the underdogs in these types of matches, but go into this one as favourites. It will be a tight game and visiting skipper Briar McNamara could cause problems for the hosts, but if they can hold their nerve and play as they have done at home this season then the Cougars should progress.