REGULAR season table-toppers Stirling County meet Heriot’s Blues on Saturday in the second women’s Premiership play-off semi-final. The match was due to be played at County’s Bridgehaugh ground at 1pm, but due to the frosty weather it has been moved to Edinburgh University’s Peffermill facility with a 5.15pm kick-off.
The winners of this clash will progress to the final to take on Corstorphine Cougars – who saw off Watsonians 17-0 last weekend in the first last four tie – next Saturday.
County will go into this semi-final game as favourites having won 11 of their 12 regular season matches, scoring 434 points in the process. Of those 11 victories, two were over Heriot’s, 53-17 at home in October and 41-24 on the road in December.
In terms of players to watch out for, Katie Lindsay, Kiera MacDonald, Sophie Murphy, Ceitidh Ainsworth and Sky Phimister in the Thistles wider squad for the Celtic Challenge which starts this weekend while Rachel Shankland is a Scotland cap.
Heriot’s will certainly not be taken lightly by their hosts though and, in only their second season in the Premiership, and only a few years after the women’s section at Goldenacre was formed, they have made speedy progress.
They fought off last year’s Sarah Beaney Cup winners Hillhead Jordanhill to secure the fourth and final play-off spot while results to date this term include an impressive 22-12 home win over Corstorphine.
Scotland contracted player Emma Orr has joined them recently from Biggar – although she is not involved here – while Poppy Fletcher is in the Thistles squad alongside her.
Annabel Sergeant has previously represented her country and is a calm head at 10 while Megan Gaffney played at the recent World Cup.
Loose-head Ailsa Luke, a 27-year-old who is originally from Dundee, is the County skipper and she has enjoyed working alongside the coaching unit of Mark Ainsworth, Kenny Craig and Megan Kennedy this season
“The coaches have been great this year, they have come together and really pushed us as a group and the players have responded to that challenge,” Luke, who works in a biology lab away from the pitch, said.
“Last summer, a batch of players came up to the seniors from our successful under-18s team and they fitted in straight away. It is great to have a mixture of youth and experience in the squad and the younger ones are very talented and have exciting futures ahead in the sport for sure.
“In terms of the more experienced heads, well it is great to have Jodie Hutton at scrum-half controlling things while Rachel Shankland at 13 is brilliant when it comes to defensive organisation.
“Having a recent Scotland cap like Megan Kennedy coaching us as front-rows and as a pack in general has been excellent and we’ve learnt so much from her. It’s also been epic having her return to the pitch too and she has made a massive impact when she has played.
“Beating last year’s Premiership finalists Hills and Watsonians in our first two league games this season gave us momentum and we haven’t really looked back since, we always just focus on the next game.
“We set high standards for ourselves and everyone at County always working hard to get better at what is very exciting time for women’s rugby in this country.”
County’s most recent outing was a 19-15 win at Corstorphine on January 7th and Luke, who has been with the club since before the pandemic and previously played for Edinburgh University, Lismore and Cougars, is looking forward to the Heriot’s game.
“We have seen in the Premiership this season that all of the teams have improved and Heriot’s are certainly a dangerous side,” she stated. “They have good players and like to play a fast-paced game the same as us, so it is shaping up to be a good match, but all I am focused on is a solid performance from the team and making sure we get through to the final.
“The girls are in a good frame of mind, we have been training well and we know that the overall club will give us great support.”
Meanwhile, Pearl Kellie, the Heriot’s full-back, is loving being part of the club’s rise to the top table of club rugby in Scotland and she and her team-mates were able to have a hit out with Edinburgh University last weekend to prepare for this big game.
“The team played Garioch on January 7th [a 64-5 win] in our final regular season match and then we had the game with the Uni last week, so those have been good preparation for this game after the break,” Kellie, a 29-year-old who grew up in the Philippines and Australia, said.
“Credit to Stirling, they have done very well so far this season and they have had some great results. We know that we will have to be at our best to win this match, but we also know that on our day we can do it and I have faith in our squad which is growing all the time.
“This is only our second year in the Premiership, but we have all been so committed to getting Heriot’s to as high a point as we can and head coach Lucy Brown and [director of rugby] Rhona Hume have been a big part of that
“Lucy analyses things a lot and is very detailed with her plans for the players and the team. She is clear in what she wants us to do and her drive and enthusiasm is helping us get better and better.
“Rhona is, of course, a former Scotland player and that experience is invaluable. Certainly, for myself as a centre converting to full-back, she has given me confidence and helped me to learn when it comes to things like positioning, tackling and dealing with kicks.
“In our squad we have people from lots of different places and backgrounds, but when we come together to play for Heriot’s we are united and it is such a fun group to be a part of,” added Kellie, who moved to Scotland as part of her travels pre-pandemic and has been here ever since, now working in finance in the capital.
“I played Touch previously and then [former Scotland cap] Katy Sanjuan managed to get me down to Heriot’s training,” she explained. “I wasn’t sure about contact at first, but soon afterwards I was loving it and I’ve really enjoyed learning about the game at a great club in recent years.”
The players from both clubs who are in the Thistles squad will play for their club this Saturday, but will then be available to the select side for the rest of the Celtic Challenge matches, it is thought.
The Lowdown –
Stirling County v Heriot’s Blues
Venue: Peffermilll @ 5.15pm
Stirling County: F Keys; N Flynn, R Shankland, L Macrae, S Phimister; Ceitidh Ainsworth, J Hutton; A Luke©, A Sutcliffe, K Lindsay, Ciorstaidh Ainsworth, S Murdoch, K MacDonald, H Davis, R Cox. Subs: M Kennedy, A Hopwood, S Murphy, I Puccianti, B Henderson.
Heriot’s Blues: P Kellie; M Thomson, M Gaffney, G Chicot, E Flavell; A Sergeant, C Sedgeworth©; E Collins, M Taylor, A Wilson, A Murray, C Harrison, H Dunnett, T Brough, P Fletcher. Subs: C Fairbank, J Courtney, C Syme, J Elliott, J Reid.
Key battle: Rachel Shankland versus Megan Gaffney.
What the coaches say –
“We are looking forward to playing Heriot’s this weekend. We both play a very similar style of rugby and it should be an entertaining spectacle for the fans. Both teams have great back lines and so the team that wins most ball up front should get the result …” – Mark Ainsworth (Stirling County)
“This is Heriot’s second season in the Premiership and to reach the semi-finals, the first club to do so in their second season, highlights just how much the players and coaching team have really worked hard to develop in a short time. We know what Stirling have to offer and a friendly with Edinburgh University has really helped establish key areas of success for us as a squad as well as build confidence going into this game. As a squad we’ve got nothing to lose and are proud of how far we’ve come, so everyone is excited to go out there and enjoy every minute of the game and put things right from the last two times we’ve met Stirling. I’m excited to see how the players really embrace the experience and this week’s training has shown how much the players are looking forward to it …” – Lucy Brown (Heriot’s Blues)
Verdict: Like Corstorphine last weekend versus Watsonians, County will start as favourites here and, although it is not a tag they have been used to in recent years, they are a strong unit. Despite having to give up home advantage, if they maintain their form from the regular season then they should come through this test, but Heriot’s have some very dangerous players and, with nothing to lose, will be ready to give it everything.
Stirling County win.