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Thistly and thriving: Scotland’s return to winning ways

By Claire Thomas
STELLENBOSCH, SOUTH AFRICA - OCTOBER 13: Chloe Rollie, Helen Nelson, Lisa Thomson and Sarah Law pose for a photo at full-time following the WXV 2 2023 match between Scotland and South Africa at The Danie Craven Stadium on October 13, 2023 in Stellenbosch, South Africa. (Photo by Johan Rynners - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

LLLLLLLLLLLLWWWWW. That’s the short version.

‘Winning is a habit’ is something you hear an awful lot in sport, and Scotland’s recent results suggest that’s a truism based on – well – truths: look at the form guide above and try to argue that performances exist in isolation. An Azzurri-thwarting, tear-jerking thriller at Edinburgh’s DAM Health Stadium in April snapped a twelve-match losing streak, and Bryan Easson’s women have been on a Rollie ever since.

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After two bonus point victories in South Africa, they’re neck-and-neck with Italy at the top of the WXV 2 standings, which you’d think might make their shared hotel situation in Cape Town a little awkward, but – apparently – the two nations are getting on just fine. They were also in the same accommodation at the World Cup, so are happy cohabiters, and I must remember to find out more about the ‘sing-off’ which took place at last Autumn’s tournament.

Apparently – Japan, Italy, and Scotland all went full ‘Pitch Perfect’, and took part in some sort of vocal riff-down one evening. Aca-awesome. Scrummers turned hummers. From conversions to modulations, via a beatbox kick. If anyone can shed any light: please get in touch.

Anyway. Back to rugby, and Scotland’s return to winning ways. At the heart of this turnaround – as both a leader and midfield stalwart – is Lisa Thomson, who’s had a whirlwind last 18 months. Co-captaining Scotland Sevens at the Commonwealths, playing every minute of their campaign in New Zealand, earning her 50th cap against Les Bleues in Vannes, going the distance as the Thistles finally seized that most longed-for dub against Italy, securing Olympic qualification with Team GB, and then notching a peach against South Africa in the opening weekend of WXV.

She’s an eternal joy to watch – an athlete who’s spoilt for choice each and every time she receives the ball. Thomson chips, lashes, grubbers, dummies, steps, scorches, and barrels with relish – and, given what a year or so she’s had, felt the perfect tartan tearaway to grab ten minutes with this week.

Women’s sport is a rapidly evolving landscape (that’s not meant to be a hot take; don’t worry), and the centre is well aware that she’s now competing in an environment almost unrecognisable from the one in which she made her 2016 debut. The teenager earned her first cap under Shade Munro, who was a history-maker himself, as Scotland women’s first full-time coach.

‘The programme’s changed massively,” she observes. “It’s like light and day. Him [Munro] being full-time was a breakthrough, and now we have 30 professional players. The difference is crazy, but it’s where the game needs to be, and I’m – obviously – absolutely loving it. We need to keep pushing on, though, if we’re going to compete on a global stage with the Englands and Frances of this world.”

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The Red Roses have long been the standard bearers for professionalism, with Les Bleues not far behind, and both Wales and Italy took significant strides with their own investments ahead of last Autumn’s showpiece. Scotland weren’t afforded this luxury in time for the tournament, but 28 athletes were given early Christmas presents in December, when year-long contracts were awarded.

Thomson was not amongst them, nor were acrobatic road runners Rhona Lloyd or Shona Campbell. They’d opted for a dramatically different look to their seasons: a stint on the sevens circuit, and all the horizon-expanding which comes with it. “With the Scottish environment being so small, you only play alongside a small core of people. It’s special – you learn a lot, and grow up together – but it’s important to see what else is out there.”

Travelling the world, immersed in a full-time programme, rubbing shoulders with English and Welsh stars, and regularly going toe-to-toe with some of the game’s most explosive athletes: the appeal’s clear. “It’s a completely different, and crazy, setting – but I believe that, the more of those you’re in, the more you learn.”

Fresh perspectives have enriched her understanding of both the game as a whole and her assessment of her own potential and performances. “We talk rugby quite a lot,” she muses, “so there’s a pooling of experiences and lots of ideas bouncing.” I suggest that the opportunity to observe the mercurial Meg Jones at close quarters is invaluable, and she scoffs: ‘Let’s not give her that ego boost: she doesn’t need it… I’m kidding; Meg’s pure class.”

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Scotland suddenly had 31 professional players, and would look – as the SRU’s Director of High Performance, Jim Mallinder, promised – to ‘compete with and challenge the top teams on the world stage.’ The first step in that process: to actually win a game.

As you’d expect from a team featuring heartfelt gladiators like Rachel Malcolm, Jade Konkel-Roberts, Lana Skeldon, and Emma Wassell – the side were playing themselves into the ground each and every time they laced up, but just couldn’t get over the line.

As the ink dried on those historic contracts, they were stuck on a nine-match losing run – six of which were by margins of seven or fewer. Close, but nothing like enough. A losing bonus point is about as useful as a chocolate teapot when what you really need is momentum.

“We just weren’t used to winning. You need to find yourself in those situations, and then learn how to win. It’s not like we were losing heavily – but we just weren’t able to finish the job, or we were letting teams back in after building a lead. Things like decision-making under pressure – whether to get points on the board from a penalty, or to kick to the corner – weren’t quite right, and we needed to make the correct calls a habit.”

Scotland’s next fixtures didn’t help them out: they gave the Red Roses a brief rattle in Newcastle before folding, the Welsh starting front row put out 80 barnstorming and definitive minutes in Edinburgh, and then Les Bleues found their feet just before half-time in round three, when the floodgates opened. “It was the same thing we’d seen before: we were in that game, and then – because they’re a world-class team – they ran away with it.”

Finally, on April 22nd, they hit the jackpot. After finally captaining Scotland to a Six Nations win, Rachel Malcolm could scarcely be heard over the chorus of ‘Loch Lomond’, as she admitted that the previous year had ‘been hell in a lot of ways’. In the background, the celebrations were euphoric, uninhibited, and overdue. In London, I ugly cried with joy in my kitchen. “We fought and we fought and we fought,” Konkel-Roberts said. “It’s our time, and we’re ready.”

“It was huge,” Thomson reflects – six months on. “Italy had been a bit of a bogey team for us, so to do that at home was enormous, and we learned so much that day. We let them get back into it over the last 20 – history might have repeated itself – but, this time, we held out. We broke that barrier.”

Konkel-Roberts was right (as, you suspect, she always is): it was Scotland’s time, and proved a thistly fork in the road. The Italian Job was backed up against Ireland, before Spain were conquered in a September tune-up, and then they got stuck into this current campaign.

Goldilocks would approve of WXV 2 as the Scots’ arena this year: the level of competition isn’t too hard or too soft, too hot or too cold. Bryan Easson’s side will depart South Africa with both confidence and hard-earned performance gains, having faced opponents who were properly challenging, but not so insurmountable that they could snuff out this newfound momentum.

“Absolutely: it’s just what we want right now. They’re all very good teams, so are pushing us hard, and we want to put out better and better performances. We beat South Africa but weren’t happy with our game – which is a really nice place to be, but also quite frustrating. We then got closer to a full 80 against the USA, so now it’s all about going again against Japan – who are a really good side – and being even more clinical. We can’t think about winning the tournament if we don’t win that game, when we want to put something out there we can be really proud of.”

As much as investment is often the catalyst for the most significant change, ‘professional contracts go in – results come out’ is a serious oversimplification of the equation. Long before Scotland’s wins started coming, the improvements were noticeable – and Head Coach Easson’s role cannot be overstated. Look at the calibre of his appointments, too: Chris Laidlaw and now Matt Banahan focussing on attack, Martin Haag on forwards duty, and Tyrone Holmes honing their defence.

Then there are the prodigious youngsters flooding Scottish ranks. Former ballerina Fran McGhie was only unearthed during the Celtic Challenge Cup last spring, and now she’s a Leicester Tiger, a test match starter, and a human highlights reel to boot. She’s not the only one.

“We’re all looking over our shoulders, for sure: the talent coming through right now is unreal. I absolutely love combining with Emma [Orr], and both she and Meryl [Smith] play completely without fear – they just take on what’s in front of them. They’re brilliant, and Evie [Gallagher] at the weekend was just… unbelievable. She’s good. She’s very good. These youngsters light up the park, and it’s super exciting for us all to line up alongside them.”

Despite the ever-mounting competition for places, do they all love each other as much as they seem to? The squad are plastered across one another’s platforms: at weddings, on holidays, celebrating their teammates’ successes – and posing, caffeinating, and reeling their way around South Africa this past month. “We really do. We’ve all grown up together, and come through the same systems. We’ve also handled some hard times, and helped each other through those. Being Scottish is a special bond.” How so? “It’s hard to explain, but we’ve talked about it and drawn on it whilst we’ve been out here. We’re a small nation, but all pull together and fight hard for everything, which brings us closer.”

Speaking of the team, there’s a meeting starting, so it’s time to let Thomson scarper. Quick one – what’s been the off-field highlight of WXV so far? The response is immediate: “climbing Table Mountain.” There’s a quick giggle over what a textbook and tame answer that is, but what’s perhaps more striking is its metaphorical neatness. This entire Scottish programme is on an inarguable ascent, and – in a few days’ time – we might just find these winning-again Thistles at the summit of another table.

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