SCOTLAND recognise and respect the size of the challenge they face on Saturday but are not daunted by taking on England in their Six Nations opener in Doncaster, says captain Rachel Malcolm.
In 22 games played between the two nations this century, England have a 100 percent success rate with an average winning margin of over 45 points per match. Not only do England (ranked number one in the world) have a much bigger player pool to choose from, there is much more professionalisation south of the border, meaning that the Scots (ranked 11th) will individually and collectively have to punch well above their weight in order to be competitive.
However, Malcolm believes her team can draw confidence from the impressive draw they managed against France when the 2020 Six Nations was temporarily revived from lockdown in October, and from a focussed build up to the start of this campaign under the instruction of head coach Bryan Easson.
“I personally think England are the best team in the world and it is a massive opportunity for us to go and try and compete at that level and show the incredible work that has gone on in this camp and over the last year,” she said. “In previous years, I would have said this was a daunting start, but because of the mindset shift and the fact that we are so excited to play together, we just want to get out there now.
“One thing I would just touch on is the belief we have in the squad at the moment, the mindset has really shifted from what we have previously had,” she added.
“Previously we probably focused far too much on the opposition, but now we have so much belief in ourselves because of the depth we have built in the squad, which means we go into every game now knowing that if we stick together and focus on our own performance then we can put in good performances.
“We are going into every match in this championship with that mindset, with the aim of putting in our best performance and what will happen will happen. We know if we perform well on any given day we can compete with all teams.”
Every team in rugby has suffered through Covid during the last year but Malcolm and her team-mates have been hit harder than most. After a narrow 18-14 loss away to Ireland in their first match of the 2020 Six Nations, Scotland’s second game of the campaign against England was postponed by 24 hours and then shifted to behind closed doors at Murrayfield due to extreme weather conditions. They lost that game 53-0 but showed real resilience in tough circumstances, so travelled to Italy in mid-February in good spirits. However, that game was postponed just a few hours before kick-off as the Italian government began to take measures to try to limit the spread of Covid, before a Covid outbreak in the Scottish squad put paid to their next two matches against France and Wales.
There was an effort to resurrect the campaign in the Autumn, which gave Scotland the opportunity to achieve that excellent home draw against France, but then their game against Wales had to be postponed for a second time because four Scots were identified as having been close contacts with French players who had subsequently tested positive for Covid.
The Six Nations then decided to cancel the remainder of the championship with three matches still to play, including Scotland’s games against Wales and France. It was a hugely frustrating outcome for a team desperate to get as much exposure at that level as possible, but Malcolm believes that the experienced has developed an inner steel in the squad.
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“As a playing group we’ve had loads of setbacks [during the last year], but the attitude has been fantastic,” she said. “We’ve come back in to train the day after games have been cancelled, and the intensity is still there, which is brilliant.
“So, I’d say we’re in a really good place in terms of togetherness because of what we’ve been through. I’m not sure if the other teams feel the same, but it’s been a real learning experience – one that we hope we won’t repeat, but we’ve definitely come out the other side in a stronger place.
“We’ve had our most consistent block of training ever, with the opportunity to have our Exile players relocate here for periods of time so we can train more as a team, which has made a massive difference to how prepared we feel.
“The girls who are based in Scotland have had a lot of internal hit-outs, which are never fun, so they’re just excited to get out and play and hopefully keep progressing each game.
“In terms of our chances, we’ll definitely be taking it one game at a time. The biggest thing for us is we want to compete at the level of the top teams in the tournament and compete consistently.”
Scotland will be without Jade Konkel, who has been a hugely important figure in recent seasons, because she is currently unavailable as she trains to join the London fire service. It is undoubtedly a setback but Malcolm says she sees it as an opportunity.
“Jade Konkel is an asset to any team on and off the pitch and we will miss her, but we are fully behind what she is doing in her life away from rugby at the minute and wish her success,” she said. “For us, nothing really changes because we have the depth and there are players who now have the chance to step up. I very much have faith in them and what they are doing.”