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Celtic Challenge: Edinburgh backs Cieron Bell and Nicole Marlow on their rugby journeys so far

By Gary Heatly
Cieron Bell for Edinburgh. Credit: Scottish Rugby/SNS

The Celtic Challenge helped young Scottish players like Meryl Smith and Francesca McGhie push on in their careers after starring for the Thistles last year – and Cieron Bell and Nicole Marlow are two other up-and-coming backs who have been using this year’s tournament with Edinburgh Rugby to show a wider audience what they can do.

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Smith and McGhie are now regulars with Scotland and while winger Bell, 21, and full-back Marlow, 20, still have some work to do to get into the international mix their performances in recent weeks have certainly caught the eye.

Flyer Bell has scored four tries in five games to date in the six-team event featuring Scottish, Welsh and Irish sides.

Those five-pointers have helped the side into the top three ahead of the play-offs which begin this coming weekend.

Bell has started every match while Marlow has been in the number 15 jersey in four games and come off the bench in one, showing good kicking skills and an eye for a gap.

They have both had very different journeys to get to this point of their fledgling careers and Bell picked up the game first at Ayrshire club Cumnock.

“I pestered my mum to let me play for a while and, after a bit of nagging, when I was in primary six I went to an Easter camp and then joined the mini section at Cumnock playing alongside the boys,” Bell explained.

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“When I went into senior school I played a bit of rugby at Cumnock Academy and then, when I was around 14, I joined Ayr to play club games and I haven’t looked back really.

“Even though I was just a skinny winger who was running about not always knowing what I was doing, I really did catch the rugby bug – scoring tries really caught my attention and once I’d scored a few I wanted more!

“A big moment for me that made me realise I really wanted to give rugby a go after school was when I scored a try on my Scotland under-18 debut versus England [in March 2019 at Kirkham Grammar School in Lancashire].

“We were well beaten, but getting that try and that opportunity gave me a real buzz and showed me the levels I wanted to hit.”

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Fast forward nearly five years and Bell is in her final year studying for a sport science degree at Edinburgh University while playing for the university team.

Coming off the back of a Scottish Futures tour to Italy last summer, she hit the ground running in the early months of the 2023/24 season in the BUCS Women’s National League.

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She was scoring tries for fun at that level and has taken that form into the Celtic Challenge with Edinburgh where she has been learning from a batch of internationalists.

“Having Scotland caps like Jenny Maxwell, Caity Mattinson, Sarah Denholm, Lisa Thomson and Emma Orr playing inside me has been brilliant for me and my development – they have certainly made my job a lot easier,” Bell joked.

“Running off people of that quality and having centres like Lisa and Emma putting me into space alongside [Watsonians’] Briar McNamara has been class. I have just tried to learn from being alongside them and picked up things along the way.

“The two things I have been really working on with their help have been communication out there on the pitch and working off my wing to go looking for opportunities.

“When Lisa Thomson came into the programme a couple of matches in, her constant chat and communication during games was something which really struck me while I’m getting better at heading in off the touchline and looking for other chances to get ball in hand.”

This Saturday, Edinburgh entertain the Irish Wolfhounds and with the latter four points ahead of the Scots with just two matches remaining it is a ‘must-win’ for the hosts to keep up any title hopes.

Bell scored in a loss to the same opponents back in early January and will be keen to add to her tally at the weekend and against the Irish Clovers in Wales on March 3.

“We still feel our best performances are to come which is exciting,” she concluded.

Bell’s fellow back three player Marlow was born and raised in Hong Kong.

“I started playing football and rugby from a young age and I was involved in the latter with the Flying Kukris from when I was six,” she said.

“When I was 13, I moved to England to take up a football scholarship at King’s College in Taunton in Somerset.

“My football didn’t work out as I’d hoped, but I loved my time at the school and it exposed me to lots of different sports such as hockey and cricket and I knew that I still wanted sport to be a big part of my life.

“As a result, when I started to study at Cardiff Met I really wanted to give rugby another go having not played for a few years and I am so glad that I did.

“Currently in the university rugby programme I am coached by Lisa Newton and [recently retired Wales international] Elinor Snowsill and they are brilliant.”

At Cardiff Metropolitan University, Marlow is in the final year of a sport, physical education and health degree and in the BUCS Women’s National League she has played a lot at stand-off this season.

After one of her games for the university team Scottish Rugby’s Scottish Qualified (SQ) performance transition manager Peter Walton called her up and asked if she would be interested in playing with Edinburgh in the Celtic Challenge.

“I jumped at the chance,” Marlow beamed.

“I qualify for Scotland through my granny who was born and raised in Motherwell. She has sadly passed away, but she always loved hearing about my sporting adventures and it means an awful lot to my family that I am getting the opportunity to play for a Scottish club in such a big competition as this one.

“Coming into the environment and not knowing anyone I thought it might take me time to settle in, but from the very first training session everyone was so welcoming and I just loved it.

“As I said, I have been used to playing stand-off for Cardiff Met, so being asked to play full-back as part of this programme has been something different, but I have certainly enjoyed the challenge.

“At full-back you are in quite a privileged position of being able to see everything that is going on and the whole game unfolding in front of you.

“I have been working hard on my positioning and on my communication with the players in front of me while being at 15 is also all about trying to find space and creating chances when you get the opportunity to attack.

“I have enjoyed that element to it and, as a backline, we have been steadily improving. There are so many great players around to learn from and I have especially enjoyed working with captain Sarah Denholm and head coach Claire Cruikshank, I am just loving this whole experience.”

Edinburgh Rugby versus Wolfhounds is at Hive Stadium on Saturday 17 February at 1pm while, at 4.30pm in the bottom half of the Celtic Challenge play-offs, Glasgow Warriors host Welsh side Brython Thunder – both games are on RugbyPass TV; follow the links below to watch them.

WATCH EDINBURGH RUGBY VS WOLFHOUNDS HERE 

WATCH GLASGOW WARRIORS VS BRYTHON THUNDER HERE 

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