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A lot of tears: The emotional rollercoaster that was Round 4

By Claire Thomas
There was an outpouring of emotion after Scotland finally registered a win after overcoming an obdurate Italy side (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Federugby via Getty Images)

This weekend, we were all that teenager at the back of the hall in ‘Mean Girls’ who just has ‘a lot of feelings’. Round four proved an emotional rollercoaster with all the soars, plummets, and loop-the-loops which usually only come accompanied with the too-late realisation that you overindulged at the Pizza Hut lunchtime buffet.

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Three 80-minute whirls on the waltzer, governed by the fairground’s most sadistic ride attendant, which leave you simultaneously overstimulated and depleted. There was elation, frustration, resilience, ruthlessness, and the sprinkling of a few pixie dust moments of magic. There were also, in abundance, tears.

Several of the tournament’s key protagonists cried this weekend, and there’s no way you didn’t shed a few yourself. I’ll hold my hands up: the full-time whistle in Edinburgh had me properly weepy. ‘Good Will Hunting’ has nothing on Bryan Easson hugging Rachel Malcolm after 14 months of heartbreak, and rewatching those scenes whilst writing this has only dehydrated me further.

The greatest day in the tournament’s history beckons, but the vulnerability and honesty of these women deserves marking amidst all that hype. This week, we’re all about the tears.

Tears of pain and ‘here we go again’

The first came just 28 minutes into the action, as a visibly upset Hannah Botterman left the field injured. The loosehead, who missed the World Cup final with a knee injury, had only returned to action the previous week – putting in 29 stunning minutes at Cardiff Arms Park. One try, two turnovers, five carries, and eight out of eight tackles – plus her trademark stonking energy.

For all the deadpan sound bytes, viral BBC studio cameos, and outrageous ‘High School Musical’ gym antics, Botterman’s a true professional – you can see how much each and every opportunity in a Roses jersey means to her – and it was arresting to witness her so dejected and stunned.

She’d worked tirelessly to return ahead of schedule, having missed the biggest match of her life at Eden Park and the entire club season to date, only to get less than an hour beneath her belt before fate struck again. You sensed her bracing for yet more time side-lined, patiently churning through the dullness and discomfort of recovery and reforging. A tough watch – especially in a week where injuries to female sporting superstars have hit headlines. Talent like theirs belongs on the pitch.

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Tears of exhaustion

Nichola Fryday has played all but eight minutes of Ireland’s wooden spoon-destined campaign, and has emptied the tank – both on the pitch, and in their captain’s armband. The women in green impressed many with their resilience and ability to disrupt on Saturday – no one else has held England out for 35 minutes, nor kept them to below 50 points – especially given the narratives surrounding the build-up. Would the Roses put a record tally on them? Might they score a century? Headlines predicted ‘humiliating’ defeats, the scrutiny was as ruthless as England turned out not to be, and the toll it all took on Fryday was evident.

If she remained awe-inspiringly articulate and composed, through tears, after they were thumped by a 14-woman France in round two – then she looked simply shattered this week (even more so than you’d expect from someone tasked with neutralising a majestic Zoe Aldcroft and seemingly-possessed Sarah Beckett).

She seemed emotionally exhausted – scrubbed raw – and can’t be expected to continue to perform at the very top level whilst being burdened with the fallout of all that is going on around women’s rugby in Ireland.

‘We’re asking for people to give us time’, she said, and she’s right: this squad deserves the space to develop – without the hyperbolised or misdirected negativity which has forced a few of them off social media. There should be no leniency in the pursuit of transparency around those accusations of sexism within the IRFU, nor in the pushing of that organisation to better support their women, but Nichola Fryday’s weary tears need to stop. Ireland’s skipper has hard-hitting, magnificent shoulders – but she can’t carry the impatience of a nation upon them.

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Tears of pure relief and joy

Edinburgh was some ride, wasn’t it? Eight tries – viewed almost entirely through cracked fingers. The opening salvo: Scotland, Italy, Scotland. Two more for the hosts to, surely, establish an unassailable lead. 17 points the gap to the Italians. 27 minutes the distance to the most yearned-for of finish lines. And then someone brings in a whole squad of HBO scriptwriters.

The drama dial lurches towards the red. Sara Tounesi hurtles over, then Vittoria Vecchini. Thump. Thwack. Michela Sillari slots ‘em both. The gap is just three, and this has reached ‘Last of Us’ stress levels. Momentum is queen in rugby, and she’s dancing to ‘Il Canto Degli Italiani’ atop the DAM Health. How could Scotland possibly bounce back from a capitulation here? How are any of them thinking clearly out on the field, when buzzards are circling overhead – shrieking ‘thirteen straight losses’?

They qualified for the World Cup last February – their first invitation to rugby’s biggest dance in 12 years – before being whitewashed in the Six Nations via three last-gasp losses. A real tussle with the USA got away from them, before their warm-up against Spain was cancelled, following the death of the Queen.

What a win there could have done for their confidence and subsequent time in the Southern Hemisphere… Leaving New Zealand nil from three, they then faced the toughest of opening rounds this year – England and France away early doors –before striking gold on Saturday. It’s been some journey, but the payoff was utterly, overwhelmingly, glorious.

Every player celebrated differently: it was a tapestry of relief, joy, and tears – of fists raised triumphantly and knees sunk to involuntarily amongst the chaos of Scotland’s first win in 421 days. ‘Loch Lomond’ rang out from the stands, as we were treated to shot after shot of beaming, sobbing, players hugging – ‘Shib’ inked onto their wrist tapes, in a poignant reminder that Siobhan Cattigan is always with them.

‘If I’m honest,’ Malcolm said with a rueful smile, giving her first interview as a Six Nations match-winning captain, ‘this last year’s been hell in a lot of ways.’

‘We fought and we fought and we fought,’ stressed Jade Konkel-Roberts, who was nothing short of heroic all afternoon, her voice breaking with emotion. ‘It’s our time, and we’re ready.’

A heart-pounding, heart-warming, and heart-wrending spectacle. The most significant result of the competition.

So far…

Tiers: Teeming at Twickenham

The homophone’s a bit of a cheat, but we have to touch upon what’s happening on Saturday. Scotland will look to back it up, as they host an Ireland itching for their first points in the table. Wales will head to the den of a wounded Italy, eager to avenge last year’s 79th-minute toppling in Cardiff by Metronomic Michela. And the all-singing, all-dancing centrepiece: England and France throwing everything at one another – pausing briefly to allow the Sugababes a few bangers – for the Grand Slam.

Ticket sales are just over 50,000 and *still climbing*, and I think that home advantage could be all that decides it, because this is going to be close. We’ve run out of time for predictions, but the Red Roses need a reliable kicker starting, have looked more ruffle-able so far than Les Bleues, and will be doing all they can to have a fit Packer run out – for both her leadership, and to counteract the sensational form of the visitors’ back row. It’s going to be one for the ages.

Round four was emotional, and – this weekend – the stakes only get higher. Each full-time whistle will be tournament-defining, each victory will go down in Six Nations history, and you can expect tears on both sides.

Perhaps the Six Nations should issue a flood warning… Twickenham, Parma, and Edinburgh: splash zones. Let’s finish as we started – with ‘Mean Girls’ – because it’s round five, and there’s a 30% chance that it’s already raining.

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