IF YOU want to know how much Scotland have improved in recent seasons, there is no better person to ask than Annabel Sergeant. Now 30, the Heriot’s winger was first capped in 2011, at the start of a six-year spell in which the national team finished bottom of the Six Nations table every time. She left to work in New Zealand in 2015, and when she returned around six months ago she found a team that had changed for the better in so many ways.
The transformation is far from complete, of course, and the squad remains very much a work in progress under head coach Shade Munro. But two wins in the 2017 Championship and one last year were positive proof that things are moving in the right direction, and Sergeant is convinced that behind the scenes, too, the approach is far more professional than it was when she started out as an international.
“It’s pretty much night-and-day different to what it used to be,” she said after being named in the team to play Italy tonight (Friday) at Scotstoun in the first match of this year’s Six Nations. “I remember every season there would be different players in the squad, and it was a continuous turnover of players, whereas now it is so good with the consistency coming right through from the coaches to the players.
“And to see how we have improved in everything we do is just great. From the preparation, to training, to games, everything seems more professional.”
Sergeant is part of a back division that has acquired a far sharper cutting edge of late, but by comparison the pack has not made the same progress – especially when Jade Konkel is absent, as she will be against the Italians because of injury. Some of Scotland’s best results have been achieved despite those deficiencies up front, and other games have been lost narrowly because of those flaws.
Ireland away last year was an example of the former – the visitors conceded a penalty try but won by three points thanks in large part to a superb solo effort from Chloe Rollie. Spain just a couple of weeks ago exemplified the other side of the coin: pummelled up front for large sections of the second half, Scotland ended up only losing 29-24 as the new midfield of Helen Nelson, Lisa Thomson and Hannah Smith quickly proved how well they can work together.
Embracing the importance fronting up
Achieving something close to parity in the set-piece has to be the primary target for the team in this tournament if they are to continue to progress. There is no doubting the individual talent in the pack – tighthead prop Megan Kennedy, for example, is a superb ball-carrier with an inspiringly combative attitude – but as a collective they have yet to really gel.
Munro has addressed that problem by bringing in Alasdair Dickinson, the former Edinburgh and Scotland loosehead who is now a specialist coach with the Scottish Rugby Academy. Lisa Cockburn, who occupies his old position in the front-row, believes that Dickinson has already made a difference in the short time he has had to work with the squad.
“We’ve done loads of work with him on the scrums,” she said. “Every session we do a little bit and he believes in drip-feeding info in. We’ve done stuff on two-on-ones, our body shape, analysis as a unit with him, and we’ve been hitting the scrum machine.
“Technically we’ve improved a lot. We’ve analysed our body positions – we need to stay low. We’re not the biggest pack, but we need to be more technically accurate at scrum time. We have to give 100 per cent until the ball is gone.
“We have the technique. It’s about applying that and getting the mindset right.
“We’re hitting the hell out of the scrum machine. It’s a mindset thing. We have to believe in ourselves and know that we can carry hard, we can dominate scrums and we have an incredible backline. We have to know that if we get knocked down we can get up and have another go.
“The belief is changing, and when we’re training we’re really smashing each other. There’s a lot of contact, and that’s helping us to become better defensively.”
Defence is obviously another big concern for a team that has scored four tries in each of its last two games but managed to lose both times. Consistency, too, is an issue – from game to game, and within each individual match, with concentration levels waning dangerously at times.
But Scotland are not alone in exhibiting those faults. England and France still seem to be in a league of their own, but Italy, Ireland and Wales are all around the same level. The Irish and Welsh also have to come to Scotstoun in the next few weeks, and although winning all three home games may be too much to ask, as long as Munro’s team keep up their improvement a couple of wins should not be beyond them.
Scotland (v Italy at Scotstoun, Friday 1 February, 7.35pm, live on BBC Alba): Chloe Rollie; Liz Musgrove, Hannah Smith, Lisa Thomson, Annabel Sergeant; Helen Nelson, Mhairi Grieve; Lisa Cockburn, Lana Skeldon, Megan Kennedy, Emma Wassell, Sarah Bonar, Rachel Malcolm, Rachel McLachlan, Siobhan Cattigan. Substitutes: Jodie Rettie, Katie Dougan, Mairi Forsyth, Sophie Anderson, Nicola Howat, Sarah Law, Lisa Martin, Rhona Lloyd.
Italy: Manuela Furlan; Aura Muzzo, Michela Sillari, Beatrice Rigoni, Sofia Stefan; Veronica Maddia, Sara Barattin; Gaia Giacomoli, Melissa Bettoni, Lucia Gai, Valentina Ruzza, Giordana Duca, Ilaria Arrighetti, Giada Franco, Elisa Giordano. Substitutes: Silvia Turani, Elena Serilli, Sara Tounesi, Valeria Fedrighi, Lucia Cammarano, Francesca Sbernia, Jessica Busato, Camilla Sarasso.