WHEN your team has not won on the road for more than a decade, what do you do? Turn to players for whom every game is, in a sense, an away game – players, moreover, to whom winning has become second nature.
Scotland won twice at home in last year’s Six Nations Championship, ending a losing run that stretched back seven years, but for the last victory away from home they have to go further back still, to 2006. As they face Wales tonight (Friday) in the opening round of this year’s tournament, then, they obviously have a mental barrier to cross. And the women most likely to ensure they will get over that barrier are Chloe Rollie, Lisa Thomson and Jade Konkel, their three France-based professionals.
The Lille trio are invariably among the best performers in the team, and in that sense always have a big role to play. But, having learned to thrive in an initially alien environment this season, they have an additional role to play in Colwyn Bay, by helping ensure that the rest of the team maintain their self-belief right to the end.
Rollie, for one, is confident that her experiences of playing in France will help her team as they go in search of that elusive away win. “We’ve got more experience of it now, so it won’t be as different for us,” said the full-back, whose club have won seven of eight games so far in the French top flight. “We’ve had the ability to shut it out and just get on with it, just play the game.It will be – not easier for us, but more familiar. Hopefully we can take that to the rest of the team-mates and keep them focused on the game instead of the surroundings.
“I think [the biggest lesson from France is] just the determination to play well, and to know that you’ve always got the ability to win a game at the start. I don’t think that was there before. Just the overall development of a player inside rugby and outside of rugby.
“It was a totally different situation of life altogether – the living arrangements, the language, the culture, just everything had completely changed. Obviously being with Jade and Lisa made it a lot easier, but it was still a very difficult experience to start with. Over the first few months it got easier, and now it’s fine.”
This Scotland team is still very much finding its feet in the Six Nations, but, like the three France-based pros, the squad as a whole are becoming more comfortable with the demands of rugby at this level. They can struggle for decent ball against bigger packs – one reason why Konkel is playing in the front row rather than blindside – but provided they win enough possession tonight against a tough home pack, in Rollie, Thomson and wingers Liz Musgrove and Rhona Lloyd they have the pace and penetration in the backs to win.
Wales are a much-changed side from last year, and some players who would have been in the team are on sevens duty in Brisbane. They will be back for the next round of Six Nations games, but their athleticism will be missed against a Scotland side who are capable of sustaining a high tempo throughout the game. Head coach Shade Munro believes Konkel can fulfil her set-piece duties and still have a major say in open play, and her link-up work in the loose with back-row forward Hannah Smith should provide the Welsh with major difficulties.
So Scotland should have the edge physically, and if so, they should be able to overcome any lingering psychological concerns. Rollie is well aware of how hard it can be at times for players to get their heads round the whole experience of playing and winning away, but she is also certain that, having won those two games at Broadwood last year, Scotland are now far more self-assured and ready to take that next step.
“It is a total mental thing,” the 22-year-old said. “If you let that get to you, it will get to you, but if you just kind of block that out and just play the game you know you can play, it’s OK.
“Sometimes it is a bit too intense, playing away. But hopefully with having the wins that will keep us going as well. We know we can do it, so why can we not do it away as well as at home?
“I think with winning those [home] games, we know we can do it now. We know we’re capable: the belief is there.”