TO the uninitiated, next Friday night’s World Cup qualifier against Spain at Scotstoun may seem like a fairly routine pit-stop for the Scotland women’s team on their journey to the main event in Ireland next year – but head coach Shade Munro has warned that it is dangerous to make assumptions based on traditional rugby pecking orders.
The Iberian Peninsula has never been a rugby hotspot in the men’s game, but the women’s version is a very different proposition, with separate dynamics and its own driving forces – and Scotland’s comprehensive 34-10 defeat of Spain in a friendly just under a year should not be taken as a reliable guide of what to expect this time round.
Spain qualified to play in next Friday’s two-leg play-off (the return match will be played over there eight days later) after defeating Holland 35-7 in the final of the Rugby Europe Women’s Championship last month. Munro made the trip to Madrid to watch that game and he was impressed, but not surprised, by what he saw.
“They were really very good in terms of the rugby they played – very competitive, very fit, very well organised. A lot of the players in the Spanish team were involved in the Olympic Sevens, there were 20 of them who have now come back into the squad, so that team we played doesn’t look like the same team,” said the former full Scotland cap and Glasgow Warriors assistant coach.
Spain currently sit ninth in the official world rankings, which is four places ahead of Scotland, and that is more than just a statistical anomaly.
“They have more players, they have more clubs, and apparently they have the same funding as the men. I went to that competition in Madrid and there was a huge crowd that turned up, so it’s well supported as well,” reasoned Munro.
“I don’t know how long Spain have been playing. Scotland used to be very good – we used to win the Six Nations, but it was relative to what everyone else was doing. The game seems to have grown in other countries more than it has done in Scotland, but it’s definitely improving,” he added.
Munro is one of a number of high profile appointments made during the last eighteen months with the aim of helping raise standards and increase the profile of the women’s game in Scotland.
After winning the last ever ‘Home Nations Championship’ in 1998 (before France and Italy were involved), Scotland remained generally competitive against its leading European rivals until the start of the current decade, when the team seemed to get caught in the rugby equivalent of quicksand while the opposition accelerated off over the horizon.
There was some desperate campaigns, such as 2011, when Scotland lost all five matches, scoring just 20 points and conceding 231 – with the nadir being an 89-0 humiliation at the hands of England. They managed just 47 points in total from 20 matches during the next four campaigns whilst conceding a shocking 840 points.
The 2016 campaign was once again winless but there was a sense that the team were at least getting closer to being competitive. They opened the series with a 0-32 defeat at home to England, then lost 23-10 in Wales and 22-7 in Italy, France ran out 24-0 winners at Broadwood Stadium in Cumbernauld, and the curtain came down on the championship with a 45-12 score-line in Ireland. Munro believes there has been more progress since then.
“We played against Wales in the Six Nations then again recently, and it’s quite noticeable how much we’ve improved. Certainly the defence has improved. Fitness and skill levels have gone up. It’s all relative to where we were, but we’re definitely improving,” he said.
Munro recognises that raising the overall standard of the domestic game in Scotland is going to be vital in the medium to long term, but for the time being his focus is on helping develop the players currently at the top of the tree, with the hope that there will be a trickle-down effect from any success enjoyed by the national team.
Scotland did not qualify for the 2014 World Cup and it is vital that they make it to the showcase event this time round if the progress Munro is talking about is to continue.
“Scotland have not won a competitive game for a number of years now – its five years – so it would be huge if we could get to the World Cup and raise the profile. That would help develop the game hugely. It’s all about a top-down approach at the moment. We’ve got to be seen at the top level to be doing well. So that’s my job – to make sure it happens,” he explained.
“This year we’ve had more camps and more preparation. The players need more competition, so we’ve had a friendly against Lichfield, a top-four English team, and we’ve just played against Wales. Getting better competition – that’s where they improve,” he added.
The team will be without Jade Konkel for their Spanish double-header. The country’s only full-time rugby player (she is a stage three member of the BT Sport Academy) is out with a dislocated shoulder.
“She’s particularly good, so to not have her involved is not ideal – but because we’ve known about her injury for a while, everyone else is up to speed with what they need to do in her position,” concluded Munro.
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