ALL roads lead to the 2021 World Cup in New Zealand for recently appointed Scotland Women’s team head coach Philip Doyle.
The side have a pretty hectic 12-months lined up (including a two Test tour of South Africa at the end of this month, a couple of Autumn Tests against Wales and Japan in November, the 2019 Six Nations and a few warm-up matches) before they get to a four-team World Cup qualifying play-off this time next year, which is what everything is geared towards.
“The Six Nations is vitally important for our development, but it is all going down to those qualification games,” stated Irishman Doyle, when he met the press this week for the first time since his appointment as Shade Munro’s full-time replacement in April.
“I have told the girls already that we don’t have to peak now but come next August and September we have to be at our best. I set the goals and I told the guys at Scottish Rugby that the Six Nations would be bedding in and experimental as part of our journey, and they accepted that,” he added.
It is not established at this stage which other teams will be involved in the World Cup qualification play-off, but, based on current rankings, Doyle anticipates it will be Spain, Italy and Ireland. Scotland lost 29-24 to Spain in Madrid in January, then lost 7-28 at home to Italy and 5-22 at home to Ireland during the last Six Nations. The winner of the play-off will go directly to the World Cup and the second placed team will go into another repechage tournament against a team from Africa or Asia.
It is all an almighty challenge for a team that was whitewashed during the last Six Nations and Doyle insists that the only chance Scotland have of achieving his stated aim is to strip everything back to the bone and start building from there.
“I am well known for being really black and white – there is absolutely zero grey with me – and they [the players] now realise that,” he stated. “I have already made some difficult decisions within the squad, and what that means for the girls is that it gives them direction – they now know exactly where they have to go and what to do. And, from that point of view, we have had a really good reaction.
“I’ve spent time with the Under-18s and Under-20s in the last few weeks and identified two players from the Under-20s who have been in training with us. I can gladly say that one of them will be coming into the main squad because she has impressed, so that pathway is wide open for those who want to take it.
“There’s a couple of girls who were well established in the squad who are involved at the moment, until they turn themselves around from a rugby perspective.”
Doyle got into coaching women’s rugby when he rolled over in bed one morning in the early 1990s to be greeted by his wife, Nicola, who informed him that she was going to start playing rugby and that she expected him to help show the newly formed women’s team at Blackrock College in Dublin the ropes.
Nicola went on to play a key role in helping set up the Irish Women’s Rugby Football Union and became the second president of that organisation – although that didn’t stop her buying some Scotland kit from the SRU shop at Murrayfield when she was over visiting her husband and his new team last weekend.
He [Philip] had two spells coaching the Irish national team, winning a Grand Slam in 2013 and leading the side to their best ever fourth-place finish at the 2014 World Cup.
More recently, he has voiced his frustration at the way Irish women’s rugby has been run, with a lack of ‘technical direction’, season structure, infrastructure and a generally muddled approach to 15s versus 7s, some of his major gripes.
During his tenures in the Ireland job, it was an unpaid position (apart from for the duration of one World Cup), and the erstwhile electrician is delighted that he has now been entrusted by the SRU to develop a team over a longer-term as a full-time employee.
“What a fantastic challenge to have – just when you think your coaching career is coming to an end, this pops up,” said the 54-year-old.
Solid starting point
He has been generally impressed by what he has seen in Scotland so far. While there are plenty of rough edges to smooth out, he believes the raw product is there, and sees no reason why the team can’t make significant progress under his watch.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think Scotland can improve,” said Doyle, whose nickname – ‘Goose’ – is a nod to the character in the 1980s film Top Gun, and was bestowed upon him during his days as an international paint-baller for Ireland, when his partner in crime was known as ‘Maverick’.
“I can see there are really good athletes there and with the education going in from a rugby perspective I really can’t see why Scotland can’t build a squad that can go places around that core of players.”
“I’ve said to the girls: ‘Things are going to go to pot for a while – it just has to happen’. But then we’ll start rebuilding ourselves slowly from there.
“The professionalism in the way they [the players] act on and off the pitch is something we’ll push. The understanding of their individual core skills is something that has been lacking in the past and is something that we are working with them now on.
“It is a lot of education. The girls were wilting by the end [of the training camp last weekend] because of the sheer amount of information we are pushing into them – not so much that they go system overload, but just the right amount so they improve. They are up for the challenge and they are soaking it all up.”
Creating competition for places
While Scottish Rugby doesn’t currently have any full-time professional women players, they did have eight individuals on ‘2021 contracts’ last season, with the stated aim of building towards and through the World Cup. These deals provide varying levels of ‘support’ depending on each player’s needs. A further four or five contracts are expected to be announced soon.
However, there is concern that while top players are being supported by the SRU, an increasing number have decided to commit to playing club rugby in England and France in order to expose themselves to a higher level of competition on a week-to-week basis.
The impression has previously been that this is something which is actively encouraged by Murrayfield as a necessary evil in order to raise standards at the top level, but Doyle insisted that on his watch he would much prefer to have all his players based full-time in this country.
“I would love to have the best players here, but we are working closely with the likes of Harlequins, Saracens and DMP Sharks building good relationships, and paramount is the health of the player,” he said. “We are working really closely with the clubs and monitoring the player well.
Myself, Alan McDonald (S&C coach] and Jamie Coffey (physio) have all been down to see them. We are already seeing the benefits of information flowing between experts.”
Doyle will also be assisted during the next year by SRU academy mentor Bryan Easson (who will oversee the backs and attack), former Scotland prop Alasdair Dickinson (scrum) and one other, as yet unnamed, coach.