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The daughter of a “rugby daft” farming family: Emma Orr on “whirlwind” first year

By Martyn Thomas
Emma Orr of Scotland is tackled during the Pool A Rugby World Cup 2021 match between Scotland and Australia at Northland Events Centre on October 15, 2022, in Whangarei, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

“It’s gone so quickly,” Emma Orr admits as she looks back on her first 12 months as a senior Scotland international. “It’s been a bit of a whirlwind.”

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Since being called into the Scotland squad for the 2022 Women’s Six Nations, Orr has played and trained with childhood idols, represented her country at the Commonwealth Games, appeared at a Rugby World Cup and earned a full-time professional contract.

Her assured performances at outside-centre – a position she had never played prior to making her Test debut against Wales last April – meanwhile, have garnered deserved plaudits and given Scotland fans cause for optimism during a difficult time.

“It’s been one thing then the next, great memories, great experiences,” Orr adds. “I’m really enjoying playing with this group and want to see it grow as well and continue to build and hopefully get results very soon.”

For the daughter of a “rugby daft” farming family, who describes herself modestly as “quite hard-working and chatty”, it must be a lot to digest.

Certainly, walking into her first Scotland training camp at the start of 2022 would have been a surreal experience. Not long before, Orr had seen the likes of Helen Nelson, Hannah Smith and Lisa Thomson as role models; now they were team-mates.

“I’d always just seen them through my screen on Instagram or on the TV,” she says. “Actually, meeting them in person and for them to know my name, it was all a bit like, ‘This is so strange!’ It still feels a bit like that to be honest, sometimes.

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“But they’re the loveliest people and really welcoming, and really took me under their wing.”

Neither Smith nor Thomson were part of the Scotland squad that began the 2023 Women’s Six Nations, the former having retired and the latter accepting an offer to play for Great Britain on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.

Thomson returned for Sunday’s defeat to France, winning her 50th cap, and both have played their part in helping Orr, who played fly-half and full-back for Biggar RFC, settle into her new midfield position. “Getting to learn from them was probably the best thing to be honest,” she says.

“Playing alongside Thommo and learning from Hannah was brilliant and I think that’s part of why I’ve then fitted in quite well.”

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To say that Orr has fitted into the team “quite well” is something of an understatement. Eight of her nine caps to date have been won from the start, and her arrival meant Smith spent most of her final year with Scotland on the wing.

But while Orr has settled into the Scotland number 13 jersey seamlessly, there is one statistic from her rookie year that she would love to change. She is yet to win a Test match.

It could have been very different. Scotland led Wales 19-7 after 42 minutes of her debut only to lose 24-19 as Ffion Lewis raced away for a late try, and Orr has subsequently been a part of narrow defeats to Ireland, the USA and Australia at the World Cup, the team unable to hold on to winning positions in each.

Their 2023 Six Nations campaign has been a story of further frustration. A 58-7 defeat to England in which the team showed glimpses of its quality, was followed by a deflating 34-22 home loss against Wales, a result Orr admits was “a tough one to take”.

In Vannes on Sunday, Scotland had possession for eight minutes longer than their hosts did, yet struggled to break into France’s 22 and could not capitalise when they did. A 17-0 half-time deficit swelled to 55-0 by full-time as legs and tackles grew tired.

“[It’s been] probably a missed opportunity and maybe a little bit inconsistent,” Orr says of Scotland’s start to the Championship. “When we’re good, we’re really good and I think we’re just frustrated that we’ve not put together that 80-minute performance yet.”

Scotland will need to find that complete display over the next two weekends as they take on Italy and Ireland, both at home, with important points up for grabs in terms of the Six Nations standings and ramifications for which tier of the WXV they will line up in this Autumn.

What Orr and Scotland can achieve over the next few years remains to be seen, but what isn’t in doubt is the journey the young centre has been on since she watched her siblings playing at Biggar, the club her father James served as president, and thought, “I want to do that”.

“I remember going to watch my brothers play,” Orr remembers, “and my sister, her under-15 team won the Scottish Cup. I just loved the team aspect of it and basically just fighting for each other. I’ve been inspired by watching my family and I think just that whole team aspect that your body’s on the line and you’re doing it for the people around you. I think that’s really special, [and gives you] a really good team feeling and a sense of belonging.”

The past year has been a momentous one, as Orr took her first steps in international rugby, learned a new position – “defensively, it’s been quite a difficult learning curve” – while moving clubs and continuing her university studies alongside full-time training commitments.

Playing for Biggar, she says, kept her grounded, connected to the reasons she picked up an oval ball in the first place. “That’s where I fell in love with it,” she explains.

But the daunting switch to Heriot’s, to play in the Scottish Women’s Premiership, was made to give herself the opportunity to become the best player she can be. “To better my rugby career and move to that next level,” she says. “They’re a very welcoming group and I feel very at home there, which is lovely.”

Ultimately, Orr wants to play rugby for as long as she can, and the youngster is ambitious about what the future could hold. Playing in her first World Cup, in New Zealand, at just 19 years old was “just incredible”, especially for someone whose family’s commitments on the farm dictated that holidays abroad were rare.

“That was definitely a pinch-me moment and I’m just privileged and really, really grateful to get to go on that journey with the squad,” she says. “I’ve got memories that will last a lifetime from it.”

If Orr gets her way, there will be plenty more memories to be made over the course of her career. Sevens is still a draw, and she has not ruled out playing on the Series one day, but it is a British team of a different kind that holds a special place in her heart.

Growing up in South Lanarkshire, it was the British and Irish Lions and their exploits in far-flung corners of the globe that captured the imagination of Orr and her siblings. The recent positive feasibility study into a women’s touring team has excited the Scotland centre.

“I remember my brother, he was like, ‘Why don’t they have a women’s Lions team?’ And so, it is so cool to see that happening. I think it would be such a special thing to be part of, particularly the first one,” Orr says.

“Probably the biggest thing we all look forward to is the Lions tour. As I say, my family’s rugby daft, so to know that is a possibility for the women’s game is so, so cool and inspiring and something I’ll strive to do.”

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