RACHEL Malcolm had not even begun playing rugby the last time Scotland Women qualified for the World Cup back in 2010. In fact, having already played hockey for Scotland at age-group level, she looked set to go down a different sporting route altogether.
But then came an invitation from one of her hockey coaches to take part in a touch rugby game. After that, she had the chance to join one of the country’s leading clubs, and from there the ascent was rapid.
Having only taken up rugby in late 2015, Malcolm, now 31, was called up to her first Scotland squad in the summer of the following year. She made her debut at the end of 2016, now has 30 caps to her name, and will captain the team at next month’s World Cup in New Zealand.
The back-row forward’s leadership skills were pretty obvious to those who watched her early outings at international level, and when she was first named as skipper in 2018 it was not before time. But Malcolm herself continues to experience an element of surprise at the way her sporting life has turned out, and readily admits to her ignorance of even some of the most basic elements of rugby when she first tried her hand at it. Speaking at a press conference to coincide with the announcement of the squad of 32 by head coach Bryan Easson, Malcolm looked back at her remarkable career to date – and forward to what she hopes are greater heights in the months and years to come.
Q: What were you doing the last time Scotland reached a World Cup?
Rachel Malcolm: “The last time Scotland were at a World Cup I was at university playing hockey for Loughborough University. I think I was still involved in Scotland age-group hockey as well – I never made it to the seniors, but I played in every age group up to Scotland under-21.
“It’s kind of mental for me in terms of my journey. If I look back at 2010, this was not even in my wildest dreams. It’s a really special moment to be named in the squad. It’s been the best experience of my life to be part of the squad. To go to a World Cup is truly an honour and to have the opportunity to lead the squad is beyond my wildest dreams.”
How did you eventually get into rugby?
“It was a mixture of things. I started playing touch one summer, and my S&C coach from hockey played rugby, and she convinced me along with a couple of other girls to go along and try it.
“And I went to Lichfield Ladies, who at the time were one of the best teams in England. I didn’t realise this at all, as someone who didn’t even know what a ruck was at this point. I went along to my first rugby session and just was absolutely hooked.
“Lichfield called themselves the red and green family, and it was just that culture and environment that I absolutely loved. I was there with pretty much fully an international set-up in terms of England players and players from abroad, I had not a clue what I was doing, and they just took me in. They taught me the game and were so patient with me.
“They just took me into that family, and I was like ‘This is what I want, this is what I’m about’. My values have always been around family and loyalty and stuff like that, so as soon as I came into rugby and experienced that warmth and that welcoming environment, that challenging environment, in the sense that everyone wanted everyone to be the best that they could be – that, for me, was everything.
“And I never looked back from that day onwards. I remember it very, very clearly.
“From the first minute I set foot on the pitch it was like I had always been there, and the Lichfield coaches bigged me up and really took the time. I can’t thank the team and the coaches at Lichfield enough, because they really did make me immediately love the game.”
What position did you start out in and who at Lichfield were the key influences on your early career?
“I started out as a flanker straight away. I remember the first day, they were like, ‘Forwards over there, backs over there’ and I stood in the middle and went ‘I don’t know what that is’. They just said ‘over there’, which I’m glad of, for sure – I think they’d seen me run at that point and realised that I was never going to be in the backs.
“It was two coaches – Richard Bennett and Ian Cokayne [father of England international Amy Cokayne] – and the third coach was Bali Salisbury, who was initially my coach, because he coached the second team at Lichfield. He took a huge amount of time in the initial stages to help me learn the game, and then as I pushed on . . .
“Richard Bennett is one of the nicest men you could ever meet, he was so lovely just around pushing me on and bigging me up as I came through, and giving me those opportunities. And Ian, again, is a fantastic person and worked extremely closely with both myself and [Scotland lock] Sarah Bonar as we came through.
“Those three coaches were fundamental to both me and Bons coming through.”
How did you go from that beginning in 2015 to representing Scotland by the end of the following year?
“For a season I played rugby for Lichfield Ladies alongside hockey. At that time Shade Munro was the head coach of the national team and he was going round the Premiership rugby teams in England to see if anyone was Scottish qualified. He came across myself and Sarah at Lichfield. I think the word used to describe us was ‘raw’, but he brought us into a camp in summer 2016. So I started in September 2015 and then got called into a camp the next summer.
“I had a huge amount to learn but it was a really welcoming environment. I can’t thank the women and the coaches I had around at the time enough. Going into my first Test I would have loved to have had a bit more knowledge, but I had a lot of passion. All I ever wanted to do as a wee girl was put on a Scotland shirt at any sport. As long as I can remember, all I cared about was playing for Scotland.
“When I got the insight from Shade that I might have an opportunity to do that, hockey was done with. It was a pretty easy decision. They said that if I committed to it I would have the opportunity to play for Scotland. Never did I think I would go to the World Cup or lead the team, so it really has been an absolute dream and I’m so thankful to have done it alongside so many incredible people.”
Your brother James (now 27) plays rugby, the family firm sponsors Glasgow, so you must have known a bit about the sport?
“My whole family are very rugby-orientated – I guess I had a little bit of resentment towards that growing up, because I was playing hockey and had my own thing, and quite liked to have my own thing. But it was James who probably inspired me a little bit to try the game, because it was a time when he was at Glasgow Warriors and his career was going extremely well, and I was extremely proud of everything he was achieving.
“That’s when I took quite an interest in rugby and started to watch it a lot more. I got into it, I guess; I caught the bug.
“He was a massive inspiration for me taking up the game and has been a massive support for me all through my career in terms of picking me up when I’m down but also teaching me. I played a little bit of hooker as well, which he was hugely helpful with. So family has been massive in terms of supporting me through all of that.”
You met a number of former Scotland internationals at the weekend – what was that like?
“It was really emotional and moving to hear their stories. We talk a lot about us leaving a legacy – to leave a legacy you have to understand what has come before you. To hear their stories and how much playing for Scotland meant to them I understood how many similarities they have to us. We also got their advice about actually enjoying the process. Sometimes we forget because we are so focused on outcomes and playing as best we can for Scotland. If we are not having fun and not enjoying it we’re not going to achieve that.
“I actually sat at lunch with [former Scotland captain] Kim Littlejohn, and to hear her insights about leading a team and what was important to them and their values was great. And what struck us was just how similar we are: there is so much we can learn from their experiences and they were so successful.
“Donna [Kennedy, Scotland’s record cap-holder] was there via Zoom and was telling us about the five World Cups she had been to. And not a single player in our squad has been to one World Cup, so to have that insight about what it will be like was huge for us. We can learn a lot from them about not only making the most of the experience, but also on the pitch it will be a new experience for us and we don’t want to get caught cold and want to learn from their experiences.”
Will playing at the World Cup be the pinnacle of your career?
“Absolutely. Up until this point in my career the highlight probably was that game in Italy [the qualifier against Ireland last year], because everything was stacked against us to qualify for this World Cup at that point. We were ranked four out of four going into that tournament, we lost the first game and were behind in the other two games as well, so to come through all of that and qualify for the final qualification tournament, that really was the hardest thing we have gone through on the pitch.
“It was an absolute highlight of my career, but I think stepping out at a World Cup in New Zealand with a group of women who have worked tirelessly for the last six, 10, 12 years is going to be without a doubt the pinnacle and also the highlight in terms of just enjoying it and taking it in.”