BELOW is the lowdown on Scotland Women’s clash against Spain Women at Scotstoun this (Friday) evening (kick-off 7.35pm) –
WHAT IS AT STAKE?
This is the first leg in a home and away, winner-takes-all showdown for qualification to the Women’s World Cup in Ireland next August. The team with the best aggregate score over two matches will qualify. The return leg will be played in Madrid on Saturday 26th November.
HAVE SCOTLAND EVER PLAYED IN A GAME THIS IMPORTANT BEFORE?
No. This is the first time that qualification for the final European place in the World Cup has come down to a head-to-head battle (albeit over two legs). In 2010 and 2014 qualification was through multiple-team tournaments, in 2006 it was largely based on Six Nations performance, and before that there was 16 rather than 12 teams in the World Cup meaning that all the leading sides in Europe got in more or less automatically.
Having missed out on the 2014 tournament it is critical that Scotland make it to the main event this time around for the sake of the game’s profile as the governing body seeks to grow the player base. Considerable investment has gone into women’s rugby of late, with a number of high profile management appointments [including Shade Munro as national team head coach and Sheila Begbie as Head of Women’s Rugby] plus the awarding of fifteen BT Sport Academy places to women this season [including a stage three deal to Jade Konkel which makes her the nation’s first full-time female player]. There have been more training camps than ever before leading up to this match. However, all this momentum would inevitably slow if next summer’s showcase event ceases to be a target to build towards.
IS IT REALLY THAT SERIOUS?
Munro is probably best placed to answer that. The 49-year-old earned seven caps for Scotland during his playing days and had a bit of success as a coach when guiding the Glasgow Warriors pack to Pro12 glory in 2015. He was promptly replaced by Englishman Dan McFarland and although his move to the Scotland Women’s job may have been viewed as a demotion from the outside looking in, Munro certainly seems to be impressed by the dedication he has encountered since taking over the role.
Speaking to the press earlier this week, two members of the squad were asked to give an insight into the commitment levels required to play for the Scotland Women’s team. There was a bit of chat from the players about how it is an honour to represent their country and being happy to give the time, before Munro interrupted.
“I would say they are being modest. When I came into this game, I was not sure if that dedication was there in women’s rugby: what levels could they get to and how much did they really want it? Actually the time they put in … they take all their holidays to play rugby and come into camps – that is all holidays. Their employers are very cooperative and invaluable in the development of the women’s game in Scotland because it is all amateur but the players will turn up from anywhere, they will do skill sessions at night at the camps. They will put a lot of work in – seven o’clock in the morning doing weight training session before they go to work. They put a lot of work in and don’t really get the credit that they deserve,” he enthused.
IS ALL THIS DEDICATION (AND INVESTMENT) PAYING OFF?
Slowly but surely, progress is being made. Scotland have not yet escaped a losing streak in competitive matches reaching back six years but at least there was signs of the team becoming more of a force to be reckoned with during the last Six Nations. They did not manage to score a point at home against England (0-32) or France (0-24) this year but late scores conceded through exhaustion disfigured the final score-line in both those matches after hard-fought opening spells.
HOW GOOD ARE SPAIN?
They are the ninth best team in the world according to the official rankings, four places higher than Scotland – so they start as firm favourites to qualify.
The two sides have met eleven times previously with Scotland winning nine of those matches, including the most recent game last summer – but that friendly match was played while as many as 20 members of the Spanish squad were unavailable due to being in camp with the national Sevens set-up preparing for the Rio Olympics.
Spain come into these two games with confidence flying high. Not only did they qualify for Rio against the odds, but then confounded outside expectations by reaching the quarter-finals. In fifteens, they are fresh off a series of big wins in the European Championship, including an impressive 35-7 over the Netherlands, who are just one place below the Scots in the world rankings.
“They have more players, they have more clubs, and apparently they have the same funding as the men. I went to see them in Madrid and there was a huge crowd that turned up, so it’s well supported as well,” says Munro.
IF SPAIN ARE THAT GOOD THEN WHY ARE THEY NOT IN THE SIX NATIONS?
That is a good question and the answer is probably financial. Spain did compete in the championship between 2000 and 2006, but then the Six Nations Committee formally adopted the tournament and replaced them with Italy to produce a parallel tournament with the men’s competition under RBS as the headline sponsor.
Spain did end up bottom of the table in 2006, but that was only the second time in their seven years of involvement that they had ended up with the wooden spoon – so they were hardly the basket cases of the tournament.
If they qualify for the World Cup ahead of Scotland for the second time on the trot this year, then it is going to be very hard to justify Spain’s continued exclusion from European rugby’s annual showcase event on sporting grounds.
WHO ARE THE KEY PLAYERS IN THE SCOTLAND TEAM?
The absence of Konkel due to a dislocated shoulder is not ideal.
Chloe Rollie is a threat with ball in hand and is not averse to a big tackle at full-back; wingers Megan Gaffney and Rhona Lloyd can do some damage if given a chance (the latter scored a hat-trick in that game against Spain last summer); captain Lisa Martin and teenager Lisa Thomson will look to provide some vital composure in the centre with their sound rugby instincts; quick-witted Sarah Law at scrum-half showed she can be a handful when collecting her own grubber kick restart against England during the Six Nations to make some good ground for her team; second-row Emma Wassell was a key member of (statistically) the best line-out in the Six Nations and enjoys getting her hands on the ball in open play; while Karen Dunbar’s physicality in the back-row will be even more important than ever given the absence of Konkel.
WHO SHOULD SCOTLAND KEEP AN EYE ON IN THE SPANISH TEAM?
Patricia Garcia, who can play both scrum-half and stand-off, is their key playmaker. The 26-year-old was a star of the Sevens squad which competed at the Rio Olympics and has clearly impressed Munro since returning to fifteens.
“She is a very talented player and she kicks well. That is not rare in the women’s game but she kicks a lot and can pin teams back; then the whole process of trying to exit out of your own half becomes more difficult if you can’t do the same back. We are training on ways of doing that,” said the Scotland coach.
IF SCOTLAND MAKE IT THROUGH THE PLAY-OFF TO THE WORLD CUP THEN WHAT SORT OF CHANCE DO THEY HAVE?
They will end up in Pool B with England, Italy and the USA – who are all ranked higher in the world rankings – but it does seem to be the easiest of the three groups.
First ranked New Zealand, third ranked Canada and tenth ranked Wales are together in pool A; while pool C matches up France, Ireland and Australia who are ranked fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively.
“If you look at the world rankings, then Spain are nine, while the USA are eight and Italy are seven, so if you beat Spain then quite rightly you are looking to beat these teams as well. England are ranked two, so that would be a more difficult challenge but there are definitely games there that are achievable. If we qualify we are perfectly within our right to look at beating two of those teams,” said Munro
The top team in each group progresses to the semi-finals along with the second placed team with the most competition points.
In reality, Scotland would be best aiming for the middle (5th to 8th place play-off) section. Having not won a competitive match in six years, it would be foolhardy to even imagine that Scotland are ready to compete against the likes of England (who they have not beaten since 1999 and against whom they have only scored 21 points in the last ten meetings whilst conceding a monumental 566 points) and New Zealand (who they have never beaten).
IS IT POSSIBLE TO WATCH THE GAME IF YOU CAN’T MAKE IT ALONG TO SCOTSOUN?
Yes – the game is being shown live on BBC ALBA, with coverage starting at 7.25pm.
Image courtesy Scottish Rugby/SNS Group