12 Years in the Making: Scotland's long awaited World Cup return is over
Today, Friday 23rd September, Scotland fly to New Zealand for the sport’s flagship event: a party they’ve not managed an invite to in twelve years. Disappointing Six Nations campaigns and Italian and Spanish stumbling blocks in qualifying tournaments have seen them denied entry since 2010 – when they finished eighth – but the Thistles are back, and fancy their chances at causing a splash.
They are, it’s safe to say, a little shrouded in mystery. Her Majesty’s passing saw their warm-up fixture against Spain cancelled – so we’ve seen them in action just once since April. They were exciting that afternoon, though – leading the USA at the break before the inexorable Hope Rogers extinguished their hopes of taking a notable scalp. Captain Rachel Malcolm cut a frustrated figure at full time – but they had led the fifth-best side in the world for 65 minutes, and deservedly so.
It’s been a rollercoaster. Speak to any of the squad about Chloe Rollie’s last-gasp score against Ireland during qualifying in Parma, and eyes light up. Ask them about Sarah Law’s nerveless conversion to clinch the result, and they twinkle with emotion. Scotland hadn’t technically booked their place in the World Cup until February – when they blew Colombia off the park in Dubai – but that was the moment. That was the greatest of moments.
32 flights to New Zealand were booked, but the Herculean emotional and physical efforts started to tell – and they ended this year’s Six Nations winless, with only a wooden spoon to ponder.
The players briefly returned to their clubs – and Loughborough Lightning’s rip-roaring sprint finish in the Allianz Premier 15s is testament to the contribution their Scottish stars make to the league – before it was time to knuckle down in earnest: to prepare for a World Cup campaign twelve years in the making.
Many of the national sides headed for the Black Ferns’ back yard are contracted, and – although such investment won’t materialise within the Scotland set-up until after the tournament – the SRU and Scottish Government did contribute a combined £364,000 for an eleven-week preparation camp. For the better part of three months, 36 players have had the opportunity to eat, breathe, and sleep rugby.
Well – rugby and a few other things: they’ve also eaten insects and slept wild during their tenure with the Royal Marines, and breathed harder than ever before after Strength and Conditioning Coach Francesco Sella’s now-infamous conditioning sessions.
The Italian’s philosophy is play-led – he is preparing his athletes to compete with the world’s best rugby players, after all – pinching elements from the men’s training he observes, integrating contact into every session, and getting as wacky as required. Malcolm has described one drill as ‘ballroom dancing with a tackle bag’: oh, to be a fly on that gym wall…
Focus: New Zealand
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) September 17, 2022
Working alongside Assistant Coach Tyrone Holmes, a self-confessed defence obsessive, Sella has noticeably honed his charges’ physical capabilities. The squad looked strong, striding out at DAM Health Stadium last month: they may have spent days in camo gear, but there was no hiding the effects of months of professionalism on their battle-ready bodies.
The other result of this time together, and of the challenges they’ve faced over the past twelve months, is their unity. Scotland speak passionately about how close they are as a squad – so close that they’re family – and in a way which feels entirely authentic. They spend so much time together they’ve inadvertently formed a sort of hive social media account – at one another’s weddings, exploring Edinburgh, holidaying abroad – and they have needed this combined resilience more than perhaps any other team headed to the World Cup.
The passing of Siobhan Cattigan is a tragedy about which the general public are still learning, but this team have had to live that experience and mourn one of their own whilst operating at the very highest level. ‘Shibby’ will be on their minds and in their hearts next month, and their determination to ‘continue her legacy’ will give them an unrivalled emotional edge – if they can harness it productively.
Passion is one thing, but cool-headedness is another requisite for any side seeking global glory – and you can’t help but wonder if the fact that not one of these players have contested a World Cup before is a bit of an Achilles heel. It feels a reasonable concern – this is the very pinnacle of the game, and its conditions can’t be replicated elsewhere – but Scotland have proven their efficacy under pressure in qualifying at all, and have no shortage of leaders.
Captain Malcolm hadn’t even played rugby when Scotland were last in a World Cup, and only made her Test debut in 2016, but she’s worn the arm band since 2018 – and Head Coach Bryan Easson described the decision to name her his skipper as ‘simple’.
Fiercely intelligent and articulate, she’ll also be well supported: vice-captain Helen Nelson is a canny playmaker, Jade Konkel-Roberts goes about her business with all the fearlessness and composure you’d expect from a fire-fighter, and Emma Wassell is a beaming, charismatic presence until the whistle goes – at which point she metamorphoses into one of the game’s great enforcers, and single-handedly gets through the body of work of an entire engine room.
It’s a compelling pack – and it would be remiss not to nod to the prolific Lana Skeldon and ebullient Christine Belisle at this point, who head to New Zealand in scintillating form – but much of the talk around this Scotland squad has been about their backs: all 16 of them. England look set to power their way to World Cup triumph, and forwards-heavy squads are de rigueur these days – but Easson has opted for as many piano players as piano shifters, with all 13 of Scotland’s Commonwealth sevens representatives named.
And why not? Rhona Lloyd and Chloe Rollie are world class operators, and Malcolm recently described teenage sensation Emma Orr as ‘the next big thing’. Shona Campbell sparkled in the Six Nations, and Lisa Thomson was at an Olympics a year ago – perhaps the closest any of these Thistles have come to experiencing a World Cup.
Easson will also have watched England demolish Wales last week and learned a lot about his side’s opening opponents. Eight months into professionalism, Ioan Cunningham’s already confrontational Welsh squad are proving increasingly robust – even stopping the Red Roses’ rolling maul in its tracks – so they’re not going to be easily edged in an arm wrestle. When the direct route proved ponderous, England explored the fast lane, and immediately found the Welsh defence porous. Helena Rowland, Emily Scarratt, and Ellie Kildunne carved the visitors apart – and perhaps provided Scotland with a blueprint for that first pool fixture.
I am struggling to find the words to express how much this day means. Leading this country on the World stage is the greatest honour, but to lead a group this special, really is everything.
Dreams do come true ? https://t.co/rW1HQo6LQQ
— Dr Rachel Malcolm (@rach_malcolm) September 15, 2022
Scotland have made no secret of the fact that they are targeting those 80 minutes in Whangarei on October 9th: the plan is to see off their Celtic rivals, after which they’ll turn their attention to Australia and then the reigning World Champions New Zealand. These are nations with formidable sevens pedigree – who picked up gold and silver in Cape Town at the Sevens World Cup– so swift defenders and serious engines feel non-negotiables, personnel-wise: they’re going to need those backs.
At tenth in the world, Scotland might be the lowest-ranked team in Pool A, but this competition’s format puts a knockout spot right within touching distance. Two of the groups will produce three quarter-finalists, and it looks as though Pool C will prove the most unforgiving – in England and France, South Africa and Fiji have the toughest task – so Malcolm’s side might need just the one scalp to progress.
It couldn’t have been tighter in Cardiff when Wales pinched a famous 75th-minute victory in this year’s Six Nations, so that feels the crunch match. If Scotland were to begin their campaign with a win over their Northern Hemisphere rivals, you’d not bet against that momentum carrying them into a fiercely-contested fixture against the Wallaroos. The Black Ferns will, in all likelihood, prove a step too far – but Easson will have set a quarter-final place as a clear-cut and very much achievable target.
Passion and pace in abundance, and as professional and prepared as they’ve ever been: it’ll be fascinating to see how Scotland go in New Zealand. There are some major question marks: can they harness the emotions of the last twelve months? Does their backs-heavy squad possess the firepower to live with the titans they’ll encounter? If winning is a habit – does it matter that their only victory in 2022 has come against Colombia – ranked 25th in the world?
Answers to all of those are tantalisingly close now, as the whole World Cup is. The players will be chomping at the bit themselves, but should be able to settle into their journey today – as they jet off to the land of the long white cloud.
Scotland have waited twelve years for this: what’s another few days?
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