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Leia Brebner-Holden and Meg Varley: Six Nations call-ups, redundancies, and Scottish roots

By Gary Heatly
GLOUCESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 14: Leia Brebner-Holden of Gloucester Women Rugby poses for a portrait during the squad photocall at on November 14, 2023 in Gloucester, England. (Photo by Barrington Coombs/Getty Images)

It is always an exciting time of year when training squads are named ahead of the Guinness Women’s Six Nations – and two names that jumped out from the Scotland 34-strong group announced last week were Leia Brebner-Holden and Meg Varley.

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They were among seven uncapped players listed in the training squad for the showpiece event by head coach Bryan Easson with 21-year-old Gloucester-Hartpury and Cheltenham Tigers scrum-half Brebner-Holden having done well recently in her cameo appearances for Edinburgh Rugby in the Celtic Challenge.

And 24-year-old centre/winger Varley – who was forced off for Bristol Bears over the weekend and is currently undergoing assessment to find out more about the potential injury – has been a star performer in Allianz Premiership Women’s Rugby this term.

“I am really excited to get this opportunity,” Brebner-Holden said about her call up.

“It is not something that I saw happening this year, so when I heard it was a really nice surprise and now I just want to embrace it and see what happens in the next couple of months.

“After a Gloucester-Hartpury match earlier in the season Walts [Peter Walton, the Scottish Qualified (SQ) performance transition manager with Scottish Rugby] spoke to me to see if I’d be keen to link up with Edinburgh.

“I had always wanted to explore my Scottish rugby roots, so I jumped at the chance and here we are a few months later.

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“My mum was born in Inverness and in our family it has always been her and myself supporting Scotland and my dad and my sister supporting England, so chatting to mum in recent months she has been excited to see the opportunities I have been getting north of the border.

“If I get the chance to wear a Scotland shirt in the future I know it is something that would make her very proud while my dad and my sister would become Scottish fans I’m sure!”

Born in Somerset, Brebner-Holden began playing rugby as a youngster in Abu Dhabi in the UAE where she was living with her family.

“My dad was coaching at the Al Ain Amblers club and my sister was already playing there, so from about the age of five I was down there playing too and rugby soon became a big part of my life,” she explained.

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“Playing with my friends there was so much fun and the club had players who were based in Abu Dhabi from all over the world, so as well as keeping fit and learning the game I also learnt about other cultures and that was so cool.

“I played mixed rugby with the boys until around under-14 level and then, because there was no girls under-16 team then, I was given dispensation to play for the girls under-19 team.

“I was 14 at the time and that was a big jump up for me, but it means that I have been playing rugby at a good level for quite a few years now and as the youngster in that set up I certainly grew up fast on and off the pitch as a result.

“Over there it was mainly sevens that we were playing and it was the team element that really kept my attention. We were a close-knit bunch who spent a lot of time together while the matches we played were so fast-paced and exciting that it was the sport that really captured my attention.

“A few years ago we also got to compete in a club event alongside the main World Rugby-run Dubai Sevens and that was certainly a highlight of my time with Al Ain Amblers.”

Brebner-Holden’s family moved to England when she was 15 and, once 16, she attended Hartpury College.

A couple of years there led to time at Hartpury University too and it was during those two spells that her rugby really took off.

“I was learning about the XVs game at Hartpury in a really top-quality rugby environment and I just loved it,” she said.

“The pandemic slowed things down a bit, but I was keen to take what I had learnt into senior club rugby and I was soon joining up with Cheltenham Tigers and I have been linked to that English Championship team ever since.

“After a few tougher times during the pandemic, Cheltenham was where my love of playing rugby really stepped back up a notch and, as of this season, I have been dual-registered with Gloucester-Hartpury.

“That has been a very welcoming club too and a great environment to be a part of while playing with Edinburgh in the Celtic Challenge has been brilliant too and it is just cool to be involved in so many great squads.”

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Varley qualifies for Scotland through her paternal grandmother who was born and bred in Edinburgh and now lives in Plymouth via a long spell in Bradford.

“My grandmother has been away from Scotland for a while, but she still has quite a thick Scottish accent,” Varley, who previously played for England at under-20 level, said.

“I know that she’ll be proud of me for getting a chance to put my hat in the ring for Scotland and that means a lot to me.

“I don’t think there was any wider knowledge in the rugby community about my Scottishness until a few months ago, but since then there have been a few chats with people from Scottish Rugby and it has kind of escalated a bit quicker than expected.

“There have been a lot of changes in my life recently having moved to Bristol just last summer, but I wanted to give it a go, so to then be named as part of the wider Scotland training squad was a bit surreal, but really exciting.

“The Scottish girls I know from Bristol [Elliann Clarke, Lana Skeldon, Evie Gallagher and Meryl Smith] are all so lovely and have been chatting to me about my Scottish links in the last few months.

“We had a team movie night on one of our weekends off and they brought in a whole load of Irn Bru Xtra [sugar free] for us all to drink, so maybe that is what swayed me to embrace my Scottishness as it tasted great!

“All joking aside, this is just a really good opportunity for me.”

From the age of two until last summer, Varley was based in and around Coventry and was brought up on rugby league as a result of a father from Bradford.

“He was really involved with rugby league and loved it, so that was my first introduction to rugby and I went to some games,” she explained.

“There was then a tag rugby union taster-type session at my school when I was about 11 and after that, I started to play a bit, but as I got a bit older it became hard to find a girls team to play for regularly due to numbers, so my family used to drive me around quite a bit and I played for quite a few clubs just to get game time.

“I was just lucky I was in the Midlands where there were quite a few options or I might have stopped playing, but by the under-18s I was with Worcester and I went on to have a long association with them.”

When she left school, Varley studied at Coventry University, firstly for an undergraduate degree in criminology and then for a master’s degree in diplomacy, law and global change – “a bit different from rugby, but I just love history and things like that – and while there she played BUCS rugby.

At the same time, she was connected to Worcester playing-wise and, after her studies, she was working with Wasps doing foundation work for them as they were based in Coventry at the time.

“Everything was going well and I enjoyed playing for Worcester and working at Wasps before everything changed,” Varley, who now works for the Bristol Bears foundation taking rugby and life skills into local schools and such like, stated.

“Two redundancies came last year when both clubs had their well-documented financial issues and, I won’t lie, it was a pretty rough time for me because I was also dealing with an injury as I’d ruptured everything in my wrist.

“For a while, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next and then chats with Bristol started happening and before I knew it I was moving down here and I haven’t looked back.

“It really has been a whirlwind few months since joining the Bears, but I could not have wished for a better club to come into. The facilities here are like nothing else while the squad dynamic is excellent and the coaches are pushing me on to get better and better.”

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Poorfour 5 hours ago
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