THIRTY years have now passed since the introduction of women’s league rugby in Scotland, and, on the eve of a new season, there are few people better placed to assess the progress of the sport since then than Rhona Hume.
A former Scotland international, Hume is about to end a four-year term as director of women’s rugby at Heriot’s, but will remain involved at Goldenacre as one of the assistant coaches with Heriot’s Blues Women, working with recently appointed head coach Craig Robertson. She believes there are clearly areas that need to be worked on, but compared to those early days – her own first involvement was in 1994 – she is convinced there has been substantial improvement.
“Night and day,” she says when asked to compare the present day with those formative years. “I started in 1994 when I was dragged along by a few friends to play for Heriot-Watt. It was very basic, very basic.
“I remember the strips were hand-me-downs from men’s teams – always far too big, always one of those old heavyweight ones. They were horrible to play in. We had very little, but we had a couple of dedicated coaches at the club, and with the national team too, and they were amazing.
“These days there’s a lot more support, a lot more infrastructure, although we’ve still got a way to go in terms of infrastructure and admin – but I think that’s the same across rugby. Coaching, medical support, playing standards: everything has improved massively. But we still rely on volunteers to do administrative work, and a really good logistics person can make the world of difference to a team.”
As had been the case with the introduction of men’s leagues 20 years earlier, the establishment of domestic competition for women had a relatively speedy impact on the competitiveness of the national team, who won their first and so far only Grand Slam in what was then the Home Nations back in 1998. Scotland’s fortunes went on a slow decline after that, but Hume is convinced that the rising generation of international players will continue to build on the recent improvement that last year saw them qualify for the World Cup.
“Looking back, perhaps there was a bit of a special generation there,” she says. “Those women had been steeped in rugby from quite a young age despite the fact that they maybe hadn’t played it until university. It was a group that knew the laws, understood what rugby was all about, physically took it up late but mentally knew the game already, and that made a massive difference.
“I think it’s taken a long time from round about 2006 until this current generation started – you really started taking notice of them around 2015. Myself and my peers have thought this generation is something special for quite a while now. But there was a bit of a gap before them.”
The majority of the current generation of internationals play their club rugby south of the Border – a trend that has been strengthened over the summer as leading English sides spend quantities of cash that are simply unavailable to their Scottish counterparts. But Hume believes there is a positive aspect to that talent drain, and is convinced that, while our own Premiership may get nothing like the publicity afforded to its English equivalent, its standard is steadily improving.
“If you’re good enough to get signed in England, why not? That allows us to devote our limited resources to the players that are staying. I think we’ve seen some really good talent come through in the Premiership in the past couple of season.
“If I’m honest, I’ve been really impressed with the standard in the past couple of seasons. I think it is on an upward trajectory. I hope this season is the same again.
“I hope [reigning champions] Stirling cement their place in the top half of the league. Stirling have brought youngsters through, kept them together as a group, and then seen them flourish in the senior team.
“I hope Hillhead-Jordanhill come back strong, which I believe they will. And I hope it continues to be a bit of a shock who gets left out of the top-four play-offs, because Hills missing out last season was a real shock.”
Hume and Robertson are both convinced that the move to Saturday games is one very positive aspect of this season: it means each club only has to resource one match day per week, and helps each player and each team feel that they are more of an integral part of that club. But the league season only runs until early December, and while there will be knockout competitions after that, they are concerned that the domestic game will lose its focus in the New Year.
“It feels like we’ve got the first half of the season sorted and the league really is showing promise, but I worry about the big gap in the second half of the season,” Hume says.
Robertson’s worry is recruitment and retention. “The second half of the season is a concern,” he says. “We can’t stop in March and then expect players to come back in August. Players have anxiety about that, because it is a significantly long period of time. It’s almost like starting again.”
When Robertson, Hume and their team begin the new season tomorrow, it will be with possibly the toughest fixture of the whole campaign: against Stirling. But rather than being daunted by that prospect, they welcome it as the ideal way to find out where their team stands.
“Saturday will be a massive test for us,” Robertson says. “But ultimately it is a test that you’ve got to face at some point, so why not have it at the start of the season?”
For Saturday 19 August (all kick-offs 2pm):
- Cartha Queen’s Park v Stewartry
- Garioch v Corstorphine
- Heriot’s Blues Women v Stirling County
- Watsonians v Hillhead-Jordanhill.