LIKE Gregor Townsend, Shade Munro has an increased burden of expectation to deal with as he prepares for the Six Nations Championship. The Scotland women’s team may not have enjoyed any recent triumphs to rival their male counterparts’ record win over Australia, but they have arguably made greater recent progress, albeit from a more modest starting point. And building on that progress will be particularly tough given the fixture list for this year’s tournament.
Scotland brought a long losing streak in the Six Nations to an end last year, beating Wales and Italy at home after just falling short against Ireland. The primary task this season will be to record an elusive away win at last, while hopefully at least being more competitive than they have been previously against England and France – teams to whom they lost 64-0 and 55-0 respectively in 2017.
Munro, previously assistant coach to Townsend at Glasgow Warriors, has a similar ambition for his team to the one his old colleague wants the men to implement: to play the highest-tempo rugby in Europe, and to win games by being faster and fitter – and more accurate – than their opponents. He aims to achieve that by getting his best ball-players all on the pitch at the same time, which in some cases means a move to an unfamiliar position.
The late postponement of last Sunday’s friendly against Spain perhaps delayed a definitive decision by Munro on where to start certain players in their Six Nations opener against Wales next Friday, but at some point he looks sure to field back-row forward Jade Konkel at prop and centre Hannah Smith at blindside, among other alterations. That willingness to change things around is an indication of the growing confidence the coach has in the ability and versatility of his squad, who can now boast four full-time professionals, whereas last year Konkel was the only one.
“It was a big improvement last year, not having won a game for so long – 35 internationals,” Munro said this week. “So that was great.
“Coming so close against Ireland last year then not really sealing the deal was a good learning curve. Certainly we took that into the other home games against Wales and Italy. This season, obviously those games are away. Ireland, Wales and Italy are teams that we’re aiming to compete against, so the challenge this time would be to win an away game.
“It’s not rocket science to work out that we need to improve quicker than the likes of Wales, Ireland, Italy. If we continue to do that, then we’re more likely to beat them.
“So that’s the idea: that we keep working hard, keep training hard, have as much time together as possible. We’ll hopefully achieve that.”
This is Munro’s third Six Nations, and he is secure in the knowledge that the thorough, painstaking preparation for this one is far in advance of the situation when he took over in the autumn of 2015. Those four professionals – Konkel, Chloe Rollie and Lisa Thomson in France, along with Sarah Law in Edinburgh – are just the most visible symbol of the improvement. Everything about the squad, both on and off the field, has been transformed.
“Initially, there was very few get-togethers and no competitive games,” the coach recalled of his first season in charge. “You were literally just going into the Six Nations off the back of a camp. So obviously bringing in club games against English sides, playing friendly internationals . . . .
“This year we’ve had two friendly internationals, and we would have had another one against Spain there. We played against Harlequins, we’ve had internal games, we’ve had East v West games, camps, training days – so all of these things are an add-on to what we had two years ago. That makes a difference, definitely.”
Perhaps the biggest single boost to morale, however, was that win against Wales which ended the long losing run. Its impact was felt immediately, as Scotland followed it up by beating the Italians too to end the campaign in fourth, and in fact it is still being felt today.
“Well, you can now mention the word ‘win’,” Munro explained. “They almost were scared of that initially. So when you finally get over that line, it’s then about winning again, and it’s about can you win again and make it a habit?
“But they’ve got to realise that they’ve not cracked it. They won two games by a point or two: they could just as easily have lost those two.”
There is increased competition for places now, and an increasingly confident and experienced leadership group within the team. The 24-year-old Konkel, however, remains the key figure: a woman whose relentless competitiveness inspires others to keep fighting even when exhaustion is beginning to set in. But can such an important figure retain her influence if moved from the back row to the front? Munro is convinced that she can.
“Jade will play in the front row or second row or back row as long as she maintains her style of play around the park. If that drops off you’re losing her best attributes.
“She’s a dynamic, strong ball-carrier. It’s good to have someone like that in the front row, rather than players who aren’t like that. We’ve got players like that in the back row, so if we can have players like that in the front row as well then obviously that improves the attack and defence.”