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'I think I’ve gained their trust': Saracens starlet Amelia MacDougall on breakout season

By Martyn Thomas
BARNET, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 23: Amelia MacDougall of Saracens during the Allianz Premiership Women's Rugby match between Saracens and Bristol Bears at StoneX Stadium on December 23, 2023 in Barnet, England. (Photo by Henry Browne/Getty Images)

Should Amelia MacDougall continue on the impressive trajectory of her breakthrough season with Saracens then her father, Malcolm may come to regret one promise he made his talented daughter.

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Much to the chagrin of her mother, Patricia, MacDougall has got a burgeoning collection of tattoos and celebrated her call-up to the England squad for last year’s Six Nations Under-18s Women’s Festival by getting ’11:11’ inked onto her left wrist.

An ‘angel number’, the digits held special significance to MacDougall, who would make a wish to play for England whenever she saw them.

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Selection for last April’s festival in Berkshire heralded the realisation of that dream, and so the young playmaker thought it was only right that she marked her achievement.

“It’s a bit cringe but I got it before the Under-18s Six Nations,” MacDougall tells RugbyPass, pointing to the black digits imprinted on her wrist.

“I’ve always wanted to play for England and even if that’s in age-grade rugby, I always wanted to do that, and I’ve always wished to play.

“So, when I found out I was going to be involved I got this 11:11 tattoo.”

MacDougall admits mum Trish is “not a massive fan” but it transpires lawyer dad Malcolm has committed to visiting a tattoo parlour if his daughter achieves her ultimate dream of playing a senior Test for England.

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“My dad said if I get a cap for the Red Roses, he’s going to get a tattoo and he absolutely hates tattoos,” MacDougall adds, laughing.

There is no suggestion MacDougall senior needs to rush out and book an appointment just yet, but with every assured performance for England U20 and accomplished cameo for Saracens, his date with the stencil edges ever closer.

“That is motivation,” Amelia admits with a broad smile.

Ahead of this season, MacDougall’s first in senior women’s rugby, she did not expect to feature in Alex Austerberry’s first-team plans at Saracens as much as she has done.

However, Holly Aitchison’s departure to Bristol last summer and a serious injury to Zoe Harrison provided the opportunity which MacDougall has grasped with two hands.

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Having made her senior debut in the Allianz Cup in September, MacDougall started the opening match of the Premiership Women’s Rugby (PWR) season in the red and black number 10 jersey.

Since then, she has proved herself to be both a capable understudy to England playmaker Harrison and a safe pair of hands at 12.

It was no surprise, therefore, to see MacDougall thrust into the action with around 10 minutes to go of a tense, tight encounter with the previously unbeaten Gloucester-Hartpury last Saturday lunchtime. Playing alongside Harrison at inside-centre, she helped get Saracens over the line.

“Coming straight from junior rugby to senior rugby is a massive step up,” MacDougall says. “But every time I put the shirt on, I try to get the trust of our coaches.

“Because that’s the main thing you need to get as a young player, is their trust. So, I just try to do as much as I can for the squad every time I put the shirt on and I think I’ve gained their trust a bit more over the last few months.”

At the end of April, MacDougall collected the first winner’s medal of her burgeoning career, starting at fly-half and kicking six points to help steer Saracens to a 31-17 defeat of Bristol Bears in the Allianz Cup final.

While victory was a fitting send off for club legend Sonia Green, it was proof too that with MacDougall, half-back partner Tori Sellors, prop Chloe Flanagan and others, the future looks bright.

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“It was just such an amazing feeling,” MacDougall says about lifting her first piece of silverware.

“I wasn’t on the pitch when the final whistle went but running on to everyone when we knew we had won was just a great feeling.”

MacDougall lined up in that final inside former Red Rose Sarah McKenna, who is also her England U20 backs coach, while her time on the pitch this season has been spent in the company of some of the country’s best centres and half-backs.

Leanne Infante, Ella Wyrwas, Harrison and Sophie Bridger are just some of the Test players who have been on hand to help MacDougall settle into life as a PWR player.

“It’s so good. The development of my game has just gone up so much,” the 19-year-old says.

“Having Sarah outside me and Leanne or Ella inside me at nine just makes me feel way more comfortable and makes me feel way more confident in my decisions. Knowing that they’re going to back me no matter what I do, it’s really nice.”

MacDougall admits having that support has enabled her to make the step up from age-grade rugby to pulling the strings for one of the biggest clubs in the country.

“At Sarries, you’re kind of the new one there and you’re young, you don’t have the experience that the players around you do,” she adds.

“So, there’s that bit more pressure on you but as I said, the people around you make it so much easier to not feel that pressure.”

That helping hand has extended to the training pitch. “If I’ve got any questions, they’re always open to talking to me and making me feel like no question’s a stupid question,” MacDougall says.

“A lot of them have been in the same situation as I have. Zoe was really young when she came in to Sarries as well.

“They’ve all been in the same boat as I am now, so they’re just trying to make the jump a bit easier, and they make me feel more confident.”

Although she can play at 10 or 12, MacDougall sees herself as a fly-half. So, is there a particular playmaker she models her game on?

“I don’t want this to be a cop out,” MacDougall stresses as she begins her answer. “But genuinely, I’d like to be a player that is like a mixture between Holly and Zoe.

“Obviously, Zoe’s game management and her kicking is just amazing, so I’d like to have that in my game but Holly’s pass and acceleration off the mark are also things I really want to have in my game.

“To spot a gap and just to be able to run through it. So, a bit of both really, that would probably be my ideal.”

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Game management is certainly something MacDougall has been able to work on under the guidance of Harrison since the England fly-half returned to fitness.

Asked what advice her senior colleague has given her, MacDougall replies: “Just to keep calm.

“You want to service the people around you, so you don’t always need to be in the forefront of doing things. Let your forwards do the carrying, you want to be on feet as much as possible.

“So, just distributing a lot more and playing in the right areas of the pitch. You don’t want to be cramped in your 22 for too long. Obviously, if it’s on to play, then you want to play but if you’ve gone through the phases a few times in your 22, you want to exit that.

“So, yeah, game management is mainly the thing that I’ve developed over the last few months the most with Zoe being around.”

Playing and training with some of the best players in England – Red Roses captain Marlie Packer is of course another team-mate – can only make MacDougall’s dreams appear more achievable.

Yet, the player herself is not getting carried away. “One day hopefully I’ll be able to get into a Red Roses camp and try to put my best foot forward,” she says.

“Obviously Zoe is an amazing 10 so trying to get her shirt off her won’t be easy at all. But at the moment, I’m just trying to focus on improving as a player, I think that’s all I can really do.

“Try and make myself the best player I possibly can be to then make myself be in the best position I can be to get picked for more games… I don’t like trying to think into the future too much but I definitely want to be in the Red Roses squad at some point.”

Should MacDougall make the step up to the senior England squad then it would be the culmination of a dream that began when she followed her dad and two brothers down to Bramley Sports Ground, home of Saracens Amateur RFC, when she was six.

In her own words, she is “Sarries through and through” but there was a time not so long ago when it looked as though her sporting future might lie with a different shape ball.

MacDougall was part of Tottenham’s academy and a good enough prospect for the Women’s Super League club that a decision had to be made about where to concentrate her energies.

Fortunately, for Saracens, and potentially England, there was only ever likely to be one outcome.

“Rugby and football have always been a big part of my life. I still love football but obviously you can’t really do both at the same time, so I had to pick one and I just love rugby so much,” MacDougall explains.

“I’m happy with the decision I made. I just felt like the feeling that I got playing football never compared to the feeling that I got when I was playing rugby.

“Scoring a try [compared] to scoring a goal; scoring a try, I don’t know how to explain it, but it just felt so much nicer, so much better and just the community around rugby was so much nicer.

“I just really enjoyed the team I was in and the people I was around.”

So far, it seems that football’s loss has very much been rugby’s gain and MacDougall’s maiden season in the Saracens first team could yet end with more silverware.

Last weekend’s victory against the champions could prove a considerable psychological blow coming only a fortnight out from the semi-finals.

Saracens and MacDougall round off their regular season campaign with a trip to Loughborough on Sunday and they know they are potentially only 240 minutes away from a domestic double.

“Obviously, to win the Prem Cup and the Prem would be a great season,” MacDougall says. “I’m going to do everything I can to put the squad in the best place for that.

“I’m just going to help where I can, to push the squad and see what happens from there.”

If MacDougall and Saracens are celebrating again come the PWR final on 22 June, then maybe dad Malcolm will need to start thinking about potential tattoo designs.

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Comments

1 Comment
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Brian 17 days ago

She has a good sense of the perfect fly half but I agree with her mother about the disfiguring tattoos. I shall watch her progress with interest.

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