FINAL hurdles are often the hardest to clear, but Scotland sailed through this one with ease to go through to the World Cup finals for the first time since 2010.
Colombia had excelled themselves to get to this Final Qualifier at the Sevens Stadium in Dubai, beating the more highly-ranked Kazakhstan in Saturday’s semi-final. But they had no answer to the Scots’ high tempo and disciplined organisation, and never looked like coming anywhere close to giving the favourites a fright.
Scotland, then, take the last place in the World Cup, where they will meet Wales, Australia and hosts New Zealand in Pool A. They have made considerable progress since Bryan Easson took over as head coach, with their European qualifying wins over Spain and Ireland particularly impressive. If they keep it up they should have realistic hopes of winning two of those three pool matches.
“It’s the best feeling I have felt in my entire life,” captain Rachel Malcolm said after the match. “As a wee girl I dreamt of playing with a thistle on my shirt as did everyone in the squad, and to go out there and play with some of my best mates and perform for Scotland and get us to a World Cup – well, I really am struggling to put into words just how much it means to us all.”
For his part, Easson coach insisted there was a lot more to come from his team. “It’s been such a long journey and we put so much effort into this game,” he said. “Now that we’re there it’s about what we do next and how we start planning. We’ve got the Six Nations coming up in a few weeks then we’ve got a World Cup to plan for.
If Scotland have shown one consistent flaw over the past year or two, it has been their slow start to matches. Here, however, they made no such mistake, with Sarah Law scoring two penalties in the opening minutes to settle any nerves there may have been.
The first came after a powerful opening drive was halted illegally. The South Americans then managed a couple of good turnovers as the favourites tried to build on their lead, but in the end they conceded another penalty, in front of the posts this time, and Law chipped over to double her team’s lead.
The first touchdown was only a matter of time, and it came from a counter-attack begun by Lana Skeldon. Rachel McLachlan took the ball on, and when it was spun wide Lisa Thomson had the strength to force her way over the line for an unconverted try.
Chloe Rollie was within a few metres of grabbing a second only to have the ball ripped from her in the tackle, but there was then no stopping Megan Gaffney in the left corner after a lineout drive had come close and Jenny Maxwell had provided the scoring pass. Law’s conversion attempt was again off target, but a 16-0 lead at the end of the first quarter was still a highly satisfactory start to the game.
Colombia continued to battle well at the breakdown, but they were second best by some way in the set piece. Scotland went to touch when they were awarded a scrum penalty, and although Helen Nelson lost the ball backwards within sight of the line, the attack continued through a smart Thomson break, and eventually finished with Rhona Lloyd scoring in the right corner.
The underdogs saw a lot of the ball late in the half but struggled to gain ground against a well-drilled defence, eventually getting out of their own half only after being awarded a penalty. They recycled efficiently from the lineout, and were rewarded with another penalty from which winger Maria Arzuaga opened their account.
The half ended with Scotland back on top, however, and they got their fourth try off the back of a powerful scrum, with Law finishing off from close range and adding her first successful conversion.
Gaffney came off her wing early in the second half to claim her own second try and Scotland’s fifth, and Law, who had laid on the scoring pass, added the two points. Colombia’s task got all the tougher when Isabel Romero was sin-binned for a deliberate knock-on, and when Scotland opted to scrum, Jade Konkel claimed the pushover score, again converted by the stand-off.
The South Americans had prevailed over Kazakhstan despite playing 65 minutes a player down after a sending-off, but they were beginning to struggle with the pace, and conceded again when Skeldon scored off a driving maul.
By that time former England scrum-half Caity Mattinson had come off the bench for her Scotland debut, and was joined by Evie Wills, who soon ran in her team’s eighth touchdown. Ten minutes from time another replacement, Molly Wright, got the ninth from another driven maul. Nelson, who had taken over kicking duties after Law went off, was on target this time, having missed the Wills attempt.
With five minutes left, Arzuaga was just wide with a long-range penalty. Eva Donaldson, off the bench for her debut, showed up well in the loose as Scotland finished the match as they had begun it, on the front foot.
In retrospect, all the hard work by the squad was done in last year’s European qualifying tournament which got them to this stage, and in which they recovered from an initial defeat by Italy to beat Spain and Ireland and go through to this shootout as runners-up. One of the players who took part in that competition, Siobhan Cattigan, tragically died aged just 26 late last year, and before yesterday’s game her former team-mates laid a jersey by the side of the pitch in memory of her.
“We wanted to pay our respects to Siobhan,” Malcolm added. “And we wanted her out there to hopefully finish the journey that she started with us. It was a really emotional moment for us as a team, but something really passionate that we wanted to do for the team and for Siobhan and for her family.”
Scotland: Tries Thomson (10), Gaffney (18, 44), Lloyd (29), Law (38), Konkel (54), Skeldon (59), Wills (64), Wright (71) Pens Law (2, 6) Cons Law 2, Nelson.
Colombia: Pen: Arzuaga (35).
Scoring sequence (Scotland first): 3-0, 6-0, 11-0, 16-0, 21-0, 21-3, 26-3, 28-3 half-time, 33-3, 35-3, 40-3, 42-3, 47-3, 52-3, 57-3, 59-3.
Yellow card: Colombia: Romero (53)
Scotland: C Rollie; R Lloyd, L Thomson, H Nelson, M Gaffney (S Campbell 56); S Law (E Wills 61), J Maxwell (C Mattinson 56); L Bartlett (L Cockburn 56), L Skeldon (M Wright 61), C Belisle (K Dougan 72), E Wassell, L McMillan (E Donaldson 72), R Malcolm (capt, E Gallagher 61), R McLachlan, J Konkel.
Colombia: L Mejia; J Soto (L Garcia 74), L Soto (capt), I Romero, M Arzuaga; C Lopera (V Tapias 62), A Ramirez (Y Quintero 67); A Andrioly (S Olave 37), N Barajas (G Avendano 74), A Betancur (G Gomez 73), V Alvarez, A Vargas, A Manyoma, V Munoz, T Hernandez (C Arango 65).
Referee: A McLachlan (Australia).