Copyright : Mark Francis, 2003
This account of the Scottish Women’s Rugby Union team is written to coincide with the 10th anniversary of our first international, Valentine’s Day, 1993. It covers the first five years of matches and training camps, to the end of the World Championship in 1998.
My memory and the training notes I took, plus the photographs and newspaper articles I kept are the basis for what you will read. This means I’ll share my interpretation of events as I remember them with an emphasis on the matches and players, rather than the monumental and tireless co-ordination that went behind it all.
It’s amazing how easily I have recalled details by using these references and playing the various pieces of music we incorporated to bind and inspire the squad. I haven’t checked the accuracy of what I say in fine detail, which gives everyone I mention the opportunity to contest my recollection and standpoint over a beer or two at your convenience and my expense.
My purpose in writing this story was first to remind myself of all the adventures we had. Second, it’s a history needing to be retained. Third, and in many ways most important, it’s for the players, coaches and officials who have made Scottish women’s rugby strong. To them I say a big thank you for letting me, an Englishman, into your world for five precious years. You have given me the ability to sing ‘Flower of Scotland’ and mean it.
My role with the team took on many forms and will be explored later. Officially I was an assistant to Roddy Stevenson the Head Coach and Ramsay Jones, the team’s manager. Roddy and Ramsay are life-long friends now, and are the two men Scottish women’s rugby was most fortunate to snare. They created the foundation and momentum, which has kept Scottish Women’s rugby in the top flight for a decade.
A DVD, containing two of our motivation videos and some other interesting footage, accompanies this book. A big thanks to my friend Des Beirne who not only edited the motivation videos, but has also re-mastered them in digital format for posterity.
This story of ‘Something Inside So Strong’ is dedicated to all my friends in Scotland and to nine special kids who have Roddy, Ramsay and me for dads:
‘’If I should become a stranger
It would make me more than sad
Because Caledonia’s been everything
I’ve ever had’’
(Best rendition: Kim Craigie, Scotland International 1994-1998)
A crisp, cool Edinburgh morning on Valentine’s Day, 1993 brought with it such hope, exuberance and anticipation. The first ever women’s rugby international for Scotland would commence at 2pm at Raeburn Place against fellow debutants Ireland.
I was awake earlier than usual that day, my head too full to linger in bed. I was soon sipping hot coffee in the team Hotel’s foyer with fellow early-risers the mercurial Ramsay Jones and Ali Mackenzie, hooker and would-be team comedienne.
‘’This is the beginning of something special!’’ Ramsay beamed.
His comment made me wonder where the journey would take us. In some ways, at that moment, I didn’t care. None of us did; we were determined to lap up every second on this special day.
Turning to Ramsay as he puffed at a much-needed first cigarette of the day, I asked:
‘’Do you think we’ll get a decent crowd today?’’
Ali jumped in positively, like a jack-in-the-box on speed:
‘’Yup, my dad will make sure of that!’’
I remember thinking that it didn’t really matter how many spectators were there - just how loud and ‘into it’ they were. We needed to establish credibility that day too - or at least to keep the momentum of recognition that had been started so ably by having Sandy Carmichael, the famous former British Lion as our forwards’ coach.
This moment in our conversation was just right for the arrival of Roddy Stevenson, the Head Coach sporting a semi-permanent knavish grin. He suggested:
‘We won’t get the really big crowds until we have England here in a Grand Slam decider.’
‘Yeah!’ Ali shouted, passionately clenching her fist and screwing her face into a determined ball.
Ramsay looked at me to encourage a response:
‘We’re not ready for England’; I paused for a moment to catch Ali’s eye:
‘ Not yet anyway!’
‘Hello, it’s Sue Brodie speaking, is Debbie in?’
I knew the name Brodie but couldn’t place it. Nevertheless, I called my wife to the phone whilst trying to remember whom I knew at work with a Scottish accent.
Debbie or ‘Mac’ to everyone who knows her through rugby or George Watson’s college spent ages on this phone call. So what’s new? But there was a note of intrigue in Debbie’s tone making me especially curious.
‘She wants me to play for Scotland!’ Debbie trumpeted after she had replaced the receiver. It was a real surprise to Debbie, not least because she had only recently given birth to our first son, Benjamin. Then of course there was the small issue of Debbie’s status as an England International. She really didn’t expect to have a choice of which country to play for, not at that particular moment in her life.
We sat down and discussed the options and implications at a fever pitch, what ifs and buts permeating the debate regularly. Debbie had two main arguments against transferring to the Scottish team.
First she had played every international for the England team, and having been a beaten finalist in the first world cup, saw that her best chance of becoming a world champion in 1994 was to stay with England. Second, and most pervasive was the logistics of living, playing and working in London with a newly born son and having to train and play in Scotland.
We hadn’t even considered the cost issue. Women’s rugby players and coaches tend not to contemplate the finances of being committed to this sport. If you did you probably wouldn’t ever start. Self-funding is the lot of women’s sport unless you are right at the very top in some select sports or you live in enlightened countries like America or New Zealand. Of course, lottery funding in the UK has since begun to make a difference for women’s rugby, but in 1993 this was not a possibility.
On the positive side of the decision there was the sheer excitement of being part of something new. Debbie had played in the first England international and the first Great Britain game. I had been coaching women’s
rugby since 1982 at all levels and was in the ‘been there, done that’ syndrome.
Then there was the irresistible nature of that blue jersey for Debbie. She could see herself representing Scotland with a bursting pride whereas it had been just for her team-mates, family and friends when she played for England. Playing in Scotland would also give her a chance to spend more time with her relatives, most of who still lived in the Edinburgh area.
We shared our thinking with a good friend from Richmond who also had the chance to trial for Scotland. Alice Cooper, or AC, had been one of the four organisers of the first World Cup in Cardiff in 1991. Her
pedigree for leading change suggested that the ‘break new ground’ option was gaining momentum for all of
us. We decided we would all go to the trials and take it from there. I rang Roddy and introduced myself. Shy and bashful as ever I probably quoted the teams I’d coached and the trophies we’d won and said I would be delighted to help in any way. Roddy said, ‘Great, we’ll value your experience!’ As ever, he was completely genuine in this, when I’ve sometimes said the same to would-be Richmond assistants simply to be polite.
A particular irony in this move was that Debbie had been picked to play for England against a Scotland Select XV at Blackheath in March 1992. She couldn’t play in the end because she was pregnant with Ben.
We went to watch the game and were surprised and disappointed that the England management had chosen to play their strongest team. 74-0 didn’t represent much of a spectacle for the crowds on the heath. In some strange way I think this experience had affected both Debbie and I when it came to making our decision to
move to Scotland. Debbie for reasons of national pride and me because my sense of justice felt that England had wronged in crushing a much less experienced side. I recall taking notes on the players of strong ability and potential in the Scottish squad. There were at least 12. Indeed 10 who played that day went on to get full caps and another four played for Scotland ‘A’.
The first national trial was held in December 1992. The day dawned cold and windy. I remember glancing over the Edinburgh skyline from the window of the B&B Debs, AC and I were staying at. Something definitely felt special that day and we wondered whether this was the start of something big or a one-off expedition.
Raeburn Place is the home of the Edinburgh Academicals Rugby Club and a book-load of rugby history. That morning it housed rugby players of the female variety who had quickly grouped themselves into three distinct armies. The majority were the eager-faced and nervous looking Scottish-based players. Many of this group had already represented Scotland Select. Then there was a smaller contingent known unaffectionately as the ‘Exiles’. This name, universally used in rugby to denote players not based in the land of their birth has a certain negative connotation don’t you think? Most of this group were the more seasoned players from South of the border like the outstanding Michelle ‘Micky’ Cave or the wily Dawn Barnett. I knew most of these players but by no means all of them. My club at Richmond ran three senior fifteens and a junior side, so I got to see virtually all the women playing rugby in England and Wales over time.
Then came the allecadoos, that great rugby term which covers everyone involved in the non-playing side who are usually decades beyond their playing days. In women’s rugby this group is significantly younger than in men’s rugby but does contain some men. Sandy Carmichael was there, the former and great British Lion, Buzz who was also from the West of Scotland club, and wee Davey Barr, a most likeable man who seemed everywhere and nowhere all at the same time. Then, of course, there was Roddy Stevenson, the man in charge who had so kindly welcomed me into the fold. Ramsay Jones was our shepherd that day as he often would be at such gatherings.
There was another group too, small and special made up largely of trialists who were also on the Scottish Women’s Rugby Union Committee. Clearly they were wearing two hats that day; on the one hand they were mature co-ordinators and on the other, desperately eager trialists who had to pretend that desire for self elevation was secondary to the greater good. Who were they trying to kid? There was Sue Brodie, Miss Scottish Rugby herself and the tireless Mags McHardy; the Canadian bombshell Barb Wilson, Jan Rowlands, player-cum-referee and Sarah Float ‘Floaty’ who was publicity officer. Maureen Sharp, who was then Secretary of the Women’s Union, was the one non-player in this band.
The trial games themselves were relatively encouraging, although poor in all round quality, they gave me good insight into the stronger home-based players. My memory picks out the propping of Julie Taylor and her loose play, Catriona Binnie in the midfield, and the sniping runs of Sandra Colamartino (the then wife of our treasurer George, but later to revert to her maiden name, Williamson). For ease, we all call her Gnomie, mainly because her total height on tippy toes is five feet and one inch.
Then there was the aggression I instantly liked in some of the other forwards: Kennedy, Mackenzie, Cockburn, Freitas and Christie. All would become outstanding internationals. I was pleased with the beginnings of a squad with enough natural talent and desire to cause good teams some serious problems.
The final trial game ended in a virtually horizontal hailstorm and in the very last minute amid the pandemonium created by the extreme weather Micky Cave fractured her cheekbone in a tackle. This casualty was alarming because she was a certain first choice for the Ireland game, which was less than two months away. Tending to the injury also distracted and delayed the selectors’ meeting.
I used the spare time to talk to two players in particular. Alison Christie had impressed me as a true power athlete, but she was in no shape to play international rugby and I told her so. I also said, ‘We need you in this team.’’
To Jeni Sheerin, who had trialed on the wing I asked, ‘‘how do you fancy having a go one day at flanker?’’
‘Whatever you say,’ Jeni beamed, ‘I’m happy to try anything!’
This marked the beginning of a strong, and at times emotionally charged relationship between Jeni and I, based on mutual respect and a shared desire to achieve. I knew instantly when I saw her play that she would be one of our star performers and one of the best back row players in the world. This initial assessment was based on seeing how she refused to accept that she could be stopped when she had the ball in hand. Our job as coaches was to find her best position and then channel her exuberance without deadening her boundless energy (one of life’s more rewarding challenges I must say).
FIRST SELECTION MEETING
The starting team for the Ireland game was easy to pick with two notable exceptions: My wife and Sandy Carmichael’s girlfriend. There have always been close connections between the coaches and players in women's rugby, especially as an amateur sport. Partners often want to be involved with each other's hobby
in life generally. This naturally leads to difficulties when one is a selector deciding on the playing merits of their partner. No matter how fair and just the decisions a partner is involved in, some people always suspect collusion and bias.
I have always been particularly harsh on Debbie in these matters, either treating her in some cases exactly like everyone else or worse, deliberately not giving my input at all and just letting others decide. Debbie lost out from this on a number of occasions and in hindsight my strategy was wrong and unfair. This is especially true because Debbie knows that my knowledge of the sport (and of the players in it) is so detailed that I can tell who has the ’stuff’ to play at international level no matter for how long I have seen them play or at what standard. I contend that an experienced selector can see a player’s speed, skill, determination, aggression and mindset even when they have but a glimpse of them in a third division friendly when their fitness is low and the conditions are poor. At trials players have frequently said to me:
‘You haven’t given me a chance to show how good I am because I’ve only played in one quarter and that was out of position!’ The right though inappropriate and arrogant answer to give at that moment is ‘Twenty years of coaching, watching, learning and focus means I only need to see a couple of glimpses to have a damn good idea.’
Debbie has always known her strengths and weaknesses and so have I. She is a clinical finisher with all round offensive prowess. She is fast, strong, determined and with a natural ability to beat any opponent one-on-one. Her hand-off is the best I’ve seen in a three-quarter. Her try- scoring ratio backs up this verdict: She scored 420 tries in top-flight rugby at an average of 33 per season, 1.2 per game. She isn’t a natural footballer, however, weak under the high ball and kicking from hand.
When we discussed the wingers for the Ireland game. I should have given input as the only person present who had coached women at international level. I decided it was better to stay quiet.
I tended to agree with the discussion, which highlighted that the trial had not given any winger the chance to show their stuff. This meant selection had to be made on club form in the group’s view (not mine). Sue Brodie was an obvious choice, it was said from her club form. I liked her from the trial because she showed with the one chance she had how naturally she stood up her opponent and burned her on the outside. Her competitors just ran headlong into tackles.
Debbie was debated because she had been out of the game for 9 months through pregnancy, and had then had only two months to get fit since the birth. Did she still have what it takes?
Davey Barr clinched the argument by saying:
‘She’s not quite back to her best but we desperately need her 20 caps of experience out there, and the players look up to her. She must start.’
I breathed a sigh of relief. We’d made the right decision and I hadn’t needed to get involved.
Roddy was always excellent as Head Coach in selection matters. He was clear in his own mind before the meetings but also open to the collective view. He and I also had an uncanny ability to pick exactly the same XV before we shared our thoughts with each other. He shared Ramsay and my view that we should select based on a series of factors: balance and team cohesion, the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition and with a long-term perspective. That means you don’t pick the team, which the team would necessarily pick themselves. It also means, over time, that you need to communicate your thinking and methods to the team so they can understand why rotation is absolutely natural rather than a ‘modern’ take-it-or-leave- it strategy. We would, for example deliberately pick the second best in a position for a friendly international so that their confidence and ability would grow and provide us with plentiful and realistic alternatives for the future. This is logical of course, but most teams in all sports adopt a pick your best team at all times approach. On one occasion we were to lose to Holland by two points when we had deliberately not picked our first choice team. This is why it was often real tough for us to ‘sell’ persuasively to the team our policy on selection. Moreover, we would sometimes select or overlook players based on their attitude alone. You will see later how we kept key players out of the first team squad for months because their mindset wasn’t right even though in terms of ability they should have been in the first choice XV.
For your first ever international, however, the strategy has to be to pick the best XV to start the game, because confidence and reputation are at their most vulnerable. Roddy summarised the back line picked something like this:
‘Gnomie (Sandra Colamartino) at 9 as Captain will lead by example. McGrandles will be at fly half but may make a better 12 for us one day. Littlejohn will spearhead the midfield from 13 with Binnie bustling on her inside. The back three are all match winners going forward; Cave and Francis wings and Sue Brodie playing out of position at full back. They’re all great finishers but defensively they won’t yet work as a unit, and as all are wingers we don’t have a natural number 15.
Seven of the forwards were clear first choices. Ali Mckenzie to hook with the deceptively strong Julie Taylor on her tight head. Cockburn and Donna Kennedy, who were to become two of our most impactful and long-lasting internationals, at second row. Lynn Gatherer and Anny Freitas were the flankers and Brenda Robinson at No 8. It was a much better back row than they gave themselves credit for. What they lacked as a unit was self-belief, not talent.
At loose head the debate was between Kath Vass, a player from Eton Manor who had not previously caught my eye, and Alison Brand from West of Scotland. Dave Barr had mentioned to me before selection that Alison was Sandy’s girlfriend and future wife so I knew I must be diplomatic.
Alison’s name was pencilled straight in to the position on the loose. I glanced a look at Roddy who looked back inviting me to add comment. I mentioned that I thought she had solid scrummaging technique (which was true and not surprising given the quality of the coaches at West of Scotland) but that she had been inconspicuous in the loose. I said 'inconspicuous' I meant simply 'not good enough'.
‘No but apart from Julie Taylor none of the props showed strongly in the loose so Alison it is!’’ Buzz quickly concluded.
It truth there wasn’t another strong option alongside Taylor, but I wasn’t happy with the decision.
I told Roddy after the meeting that it wasn’t my place to over-rule any decision in the forwards because
I wasn’t the forwards’ coach. However, I said that he and I needed to talk about my long-term involvement
if we were going to sanction such choices in selection. I suggested he needed to use my international experience to apply a reality check on such issues.
‘Now is not the time to fight this one’, he said wisely, ‘I’ll deal with it after the Ireland game.’
The prelims over we were ready to play. The game itself is a blur in my memory: this is way out of character by the way. I can usually remember every detail of every match to the point of being labelled ‘Mr Stats’. This match was clearly special.
The crowd surrounded the Raeburn pitch and seemed to maintain interest in the game throughout, despite the low score.
I noticed that day that Scottish crowds don’t tend to overplay their patriotism. The passion is deep-rooted no doubt, but it tends to stay inside, like the heat in a furnace. They stirred memorably when Sue Brodie collected a ball in front of her own posts mid-way through the first half. Instinctively, she attacked. The Irish defence was scattered and Sue linked with Micky Cave who maintained the spirit of adventure. We were finally hauled down inside their 22, but had enough momentum to win the put in at the scrum.
The scrum formed in the middle of the pitch and was in the perfect position to run a back row move, 8,9, 14. Brenda Robinson called it from 8 and broke early on a diagonal run outside their flanker. ‘Yes!’ I cried out audibly as she popped it short to Gnomie. McGrandles and Micky were outside her but the Gnomster is devastating from close range, and sprinted fast and low (the only way she knows how!) and over for the first touchdown in Scottish women’s’ International rugby history. It was her first of 8 international tries and the most triumphal.
The only other score came late in the second half from Gnomie again. We were better than a ten-point margin but our confidence on the ball had been sporadic. Many promising moves broke down because we weren’t arrogant enough to demand possession. Something we as coaches would need to give special attention to for the next game and beyond.
The celebrations afterwards lasted late. Julie Taylor’s mum donated a red rose for each of the players and wanted me to present them. Mrs Taylor I remember was too shy to do it herself. I didn’t exactly feel like Willie John MacBride either when I was passing out the posies. We then took team photos a la bouquets.
I remember everything from the long and enjoyable post-match celebration. I lie of course. It was festive in Edinburgh because of Valentine’s Day and we were determined to take part in the festivities to the full. We ended up in a nightclub underground with the players of both teams finding friendship with each other easily. Clare Hoppe, the Irish hooker smiled broadly all night without taking a breather until daylight, or so it seemed.
I was pleased we could party with the best of them. It is, after all, part of the game.
We, the coaches, would have to gradually change the mindset of those who would simply get drunk after each game. This is the way of many club players, but to be the best in a weeklong tournament, for example, takes a much greater discipline.
The 1993/1994 season was a very exciting one for women’s rugby in Scotland. It began with the successful formation of the Scottish Women’s Rugby Union (SWRU) which gained both associate membership of the SRU and recognition from the Scottish Sports Council. This also meant the breakaway from the English Women’s Rugby Union. The higher profile of the game resulted in the establishment of a number of new clubs as well as a growing interest among schoolgirls in both new image and full contact. I still wear the tee shirt Sue Brodie produced for her work with Scottish schools declaring ‘Hands up for girls’ rugby!’ The shirt is dark blue with two big fluorescent pink hand prints on the back. It still draws attention and comment whenever and wherever I wear it.
Ramsay and I discussed how important youth development would be for us if we were to see this bright beginning maintained. He was doing a super job himself by using his contacts, charm and journalistic skills to promote and publicise the game to Scottish businesses and relevant government bodies. At that time he was an independent financial advisor, but has since been a sports journalist, radio pundit and political party spin doctor. This gives you a good idea of how valuable his multifarious skills were for us in the early years. Apart from that, he added a large dose of humour and enthusiasm to everything we did as team managers. Put simply, Roddy, Ramsay and I got on like a house on fire.
We believed that winning a majority of our international games was crucial in our first few seasons. It would have two effects. First, the players would grow in confidence and get used to winning. Second, we would get more attention in the press and in the Scottish sports community. This meant we had to choose our opposition carefully. Tough games but winnable. That’s why after Ireland we played and beat North England 12-10.
The run up to the world cup was deliberately planned. Three internationals we could and indeed should win. Most of the squad were disappointed to hear we would play Wales, Ireland again and Sweden before travelling to Holland for the World Cup in April, 1994. ‘Why not England?’ they demanded in unison.
‘Because we’re not ready, yet!’ Came our standard reply.
During the summer of 1993 Sandy Carmichael had decided to step down as Roddy’s assistant. I was delighted with this news, although I did wonder whether it was Sandy’s business commitments and recurring hip problems or that Roddy had requested it. I thought it prudent not to ask either man.
It was particularly fitting though that our next game against Wales was to be played at Sandy’s club, West of Scotland. It would be the best place for the squad to say a heartfelt thank you to the great man.
In our first meeting as the new coaching duo, Roddy and I discussed who we wanted as Captain for the World Cup. It made sense to appoint someone with three warm-up games in which to find her feet before a World class tournament. We first discussed Gnomie who had captained against Ireland. A great player whose place was beyond question, but who wasn’t the team leader we needed now. Our decision centred on four factors: maturity off the pitch (for the press and the post-match dignitaries); mental fortitude on the pitch (to stay constant in the heat of battle); liked and respected by the players and lastly, level-headed and fair minded (to be able to add input in selection meetings). Kim Littlejohn, 23 at the time, was to prove an excellent choice. She was Edinburgh based too, which helped. The choice of Vice Captain, which we made later was also easy. Debbie Francis (Mac) though London based could help the young members of the squad (which was nearly all of them of course) come to terms with playing at international level. Debbie could also lead the section of the team from south of the border, most of whom were of the older variety.
The team we picked was stronger for the game against Wales and I remember thinking that we could even pull off a surprise win. The blond bombshell from the Richmond club Pogo Paterson joined Kim Littlejohn in the centre. Both players are athletic, tall, fast and tackle as hard and as readily as they draw breath. For a team still finding cohesion, we believed this dynamic midfield would inspire all those around them.
A new prop, Donna Aitken, strengthened the pack. Only 18, Donna played her club rugby at West of Scotland. So two things were guaranteed. Her technique in the tight was first rate, and her excitement to play her first international at her own club was irrepressible. Donna was to have a short yet impressive career with Scotland. My view on the reason she dropped out of the scene eventually was that she couldn’t as a student afford the travel costs associated with being an international. For the Wales game and the World Cup, which was to follow, Donna proved a quiet but technically impressive prop who had innate and deceptive strength.
Our back row was new too. In came Jeni Sheerin on the flank, which we thought would be a more natural position for her. She partnered the power tackler of Anny Freitas on the other flank. They made a great combination of bashers.
The crucial change was Dawn Barnett at No 8. I knew Dawn well from a distinguished club career in London and from the fact that she had been Manager of the Welsh team for two years. After she had not been selected from the inaugural Scottish trial and match she had told me how disillusioned she felt. I asked her not to give up on us because I felt she would be needed. Fortunately she stuck at it (which is totally in character by the way) and we had the chance to pick her for the Wales match. Her people management skills are excellent and she always had a cool, thoughtful presence on the pitch. Without exception, Dawn would make the same No 8 call on the pitch that I had been thinking of on the touchline.
To the casual bystander, however, Dawn was a real misfit for the No 8 position, when compared to a Murray Mexted, a Quinnell or a John Beattie. Dawn is not tall, nor beefy nor particularly quick. But when you have 7 lionesses in your pack one lion tamer with attitude surely helps. Dawn was a Godsend, although frankly not the sort of selection decision we would have been able to make with a panel.
On the bench was Mags McHardy - a forward whose fitness and energy would add value and zest to any team. It meant no place this time for Gill Cameron who had benched in the Ireland game. I felt really sorry for Gill and I told her so afterwards. We had dropped her and she hadn’t even played. Although Gill was young then it was obvious she had the talent and attitude for international sport. Her day would come.
I was annoyed with myself after the Wales game. I pride myself in getting teams mentally and tactically right for the opposition but in this game I made two costly errors before the start. First I hadn’t given Jeni and Anny our flankers proper preparation for defending five-yard scrums (cost us two tries) and I had happily chirped that Wales had been warming up too long in the freezing rain and that they wouldn’t be ready for us up front.
I couldn’t have been more wrong with Wales producing from the first whistle consummately their best international performance I have seen (before or since). I can say this with some justification having watched, at that point, every Welsh international except one trip they had made to Spain and the Canada Cup that summer. This was because I had been with the England squad and the annual fixture with Wales had started in 1987 in Pontypool. Wales’ record before our first encounter was played 15 won one, drawn one, lost 13 (8 times against England, but only by three points against New Zealand in the first World Cup). This meant they had bags more experience than us but most of it was of losing matches, some heavily. (298 points conceded and 95 scored in their 15 games)
On that cold December day in Glasgow, the towering and admirable Lisa Burgess, one of the sport’s great characters, led Wales magnificently. ‘Birdy’ who has since topped 70 caps, had an absolute stormer against us, and with her back row colleagues Jackie ‘Bill’ Morgan and Helen Carey in close support, we never had a platform. Then in the second half Sue ‘Blod’ Butler a close friend from Richmond replaced Helen and our fate was complete. Bird, Bill and Blod (Wales’ all time best back row) humbled us in the loose and we never gave our backs decent ball. 23-0 defeat.
Afterwards, the Welsh coach Bob Newman mentioned 2-0 to me in the bar. We had played against each other in the Heineken sevens two years before, me for Surrey, Bob for Cardiff. That day, he had shown me how to prop in no uncertain terms. He was a good coach too it would appear. I wondered whether Roddy was going to talk to Sandy again in the ‘Come back all is forgiven’ tone, but in truth I was probably expecting too much too soon. I felt better after the dinner when Lee Cockburn’s dad, a Herioter told me that Dawn Barnett would never make a No 8. In this, however, I knew I’d made the right call. And as for Jeni Sheerin, well, she was exuberant before, during and after the game. Flanker was clearly the right position for this capable 20 year old, I would just have to spend time helping her to channel the energy into more thoughtful lines of running. It would be at least another 7 years before I could talk to her about conserving energy with any hope of being heard!
Our next game was in Belfast in February and was memorable for everything happening off the pitch. First, we had heard the news that the Netherlands’ Rugby Union had decided to pullout of hosting the World Cup:
‘Right then’, was the collective Scottish response, ’We’ll host it ourselves, and at 90 days notice’.
There was an amazing feeling for me of déjà vu. The first World Cup in Wales in 1991 had been organised by four Richmond players who I had coached since 1986. Now, my new compatriots, a small band of completely insane Scots, would run the second tournament. I was bursting with admiration and pride thinking of the level of commitment from this team of people, all relatively new to the sport. I knew instinctively that they would do a fantastic job of organisation, but could they also have enough maturity and energy to play top class rugby for Scotland at the same time?
Next, we were approached by a television company called ‘In Video Productions’, who asked if we would allow them to join us on the trip to Belfast. They wanted to film a pilot programme based around the Ireland game. They would then look to sell the idea of a documentary of our world cup campaign to one of the big TV companies.
Our squad, with an average age of 22 found the prospect of becoming TV stars for a night rather enticing, especially when we saw the final pilot put to music, ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’ (Best rendition: Kimbo, Ali McGrandles and Pogo, Cooke Rugby Club February 13th, 1994)
Roddy and I knew the cameras in the changing room would be a distraction, so we agreed to see how we reacted during the Ireland game before deciding about the production company’s involvement in the World Cup. In the end, we needn’t have worried. Apart from the odd shy player everyone else seemed to either ignore the cameras or play up to them as if to the manor born. No problem there then, we were to have a fly on the wall for our whole two week Championship adventure.
The journey to Belfast was tortuous. It began with a bus ride from Edinburgh to Stranraer and then the Sea Cat across the Irish Sea. This was never going to be ideal preparation for international rugby, but it was our least expensive option at a time of very low funding.
Predictably it was a rough crossing and only the lucky few weren’t sick. Donna Kennedy the veterinary nurse from Biggar was particularly proud of the sound she could make to the motion of the ocean. Most of the rest of the squad just moaned quietly to themselves. New cap Alison Christie was unusually quiet on the journey too. A former international swimmer, she was already focusing on the game in store. What a marvelous addition this power athlete would be for us now that she had shed the excess pounds I had seen at the first trial.
Our physios were not expecting to deal with a batch of sea- sickness. And yet, as ever, they were able to do the necessary to get bodies ready to play. Darren Cornforth, who was to be our head physio for the world cup, joined us in Belfast for the first time. Not only was Darren a lovable Geordie in nature he was also a superb body-fixer. Indeed, we have always been blessed with committed, fun and highly professional physios, when in truth it isn’t easy to find all those characteristics in one person at the same time. Darren now has his own physiotherapy business based in Edinburgh, which provides support for Heriots’ School on its sports days each week. Roddy is a sports master at the school and has thus been overseeing Darren's work for nearly a decade. Darren, we feel for you.
We came out of the traps against Ireland as if it had been their team on the Seacat, not us. I found out just recently that Ireland’s head coach hadn’t arrived on time to get his team ready for kick off, and that Des Beirne (who was to take over the Irish team fully soon after the World Cup) had stepped in at the last minute to do their warm up. We took advantage of this mix-up inside five minutes by using quick hands in the backs and bringing Micky Cave into the line from her new position at full back. She took the ball on her own ten metre line and proceeded to beat the whole Irish back line including side-stepping the full back for a wonderful solo try. The first of her 13 international tries. Micky was a firm players’ favourite in the squad because she brought such positivity to the game and she had an ability to turn matches on a moment of individual brilliance. I liked her attitude to training and to team tactics discussions. She was always keen to be involved and supportive of the conclusions. As a player she was always exciting to watch, brave and adventurous. Simply, Micky is one of Scotland’s greatest internationals.
The Irish scrum half that day was the outstanding footballer, Raeltine Shrieves. A good friend, Raeltine has since confided in me that she thought we were about to run up a cricket score against them. We seemed so much more ready to play. In fact, as so often happens in encounters with Ireland, things evened out quickly. 5-0 was the final score. Not much for the cameras I thought, but I was keen to keep the post-match chat upbeat.
‘When we rucked, we rucked magnificently’, I trumpeted, ‘And when we passed and linked we passed and linked magnificently’.
Dawn Barnett grabbed me in the corridor afterwards and, clutching an ice pack to her forehead she observed:
‘You can’t fool me, Mark. What you meant of course was that most of the time we weren’t magnificent, most of the time we didn’t ruck and we didn’t pass and link.’ She paused and smiled before concluding:
‘But for Gawd’s sake never change, mate, we luv ya!’
‘The feeling’s mutual, Dawny, now go and get that egg taken off your head!’
Post match was utterly bizarre. I had been reminded of exactly which City we were in that morning when I went for a run from our City Centre Hotel. An army patrol stopped me and said:
‘Jump in, son!’
‘Why?’ I replied bemused
‘Cos you’re English and you’re a big target right now’.
We celebrated post-match at the Cooke Rugby Club, famous in the area for hospitality and indeed the quality of the rugby played there, both men’s and women’s of course. We were told to enjoy the food and dancing before the coaches came to pick us up at 1am.
After the meal the President of the Irish Women’s Rugby Union, Mary O’Beirne presented Kim with the Challenge trophy. Kim responded with grace and charm and of course a well selected joke or two. As we started to trade songs with our Irish friends Roddy and I agreed that Kim was already showing what a great Captain she was, on and off the pitch.
1 o’clock arrived quickly with only one incident of note. Roddy had had to have a word with Donna Kennedy for over boisterousness (say that when you’re drunk if you can). We needed her to tone down her post match drinking for two sound reasons. We were concerned about our image and to protect Donna’s international future.
One bus came and went with still 30 people or more to collect. Some of our other players grabbed some taxis and those remaining waited for nearly an hour. Eventually, we decided to walk the 4 miles or so to the City Centre. With my morning encounter with the troops fresh in my mind, I was feeling like the shepherd on a stormy winter’s night nervously herding his prized stock to the relative safety and warmth of the valley.
Most of the team chatted with their Irish counterparts as we walked, but I was more acutely aware of where we were and how awkward the situation may become. I knew if a stranger challenged me I could pull a Scottish accent off, but I was praying not to have to.
Ramsay and I counted them out at the Cooke Rugby Club and counted them in back at our Hotel. Then I lay on my bed, eyes glaring at the ceiling. Not in the men’s game I thought. This proved ironic too, because when we saw the film In Video had produced, it was called ‘Just a Boy’s Game’. It paid no reference to the long walk from Cooke, because the camera crew had long since packed up. I didn’t need a video to remember that night.
A charm offensive at London Scottish Rugby Club from Pogo, Liz Willshire and Mac yielded much. These three good-looking athletes used their guile and charm to secure fully funded travel for all English-based players from Intercity East Coast. This was a massive relief for us because the cost of Edinburgh return from London had hitherto been borne solely by the players.
Back home in Scotland we found sponsors and helpers too. Rowan Shepherd, Kenny Milne and Gavin Hastings helped in our training sessions and Scottish and Newcastle Brewers provided the incentive of a case of Coors for every Scottish try in the Championship!
I had been searching long and hard for a musical theme for us for the tournament. I didn’t want it to be the corny old stuff of ‘Eye of the Tiger’ or ‘We are the Champions’. It needed to be unique for our situation and us; it needed to be distinctly Scottish in nature, like proud Edward’s army sending the English home to think again. I was sitting in the car park at the rugby club in Richmond flipping through my compilation tapes when I came across a song by Labi Siffre called ‘Something Inside so strong’. The title was ideally appropriate I thought, but would the words match?
‘The higher you build your barriers
The taller I become
The further you take my rights away
The faster I will run
You can deny me
You can decide to turn your face away
No matter cos there’s something inside so strong (chorus)
I know that I can make it
Though you’re doing me wrong, so wrong
They thought that my pride was gone, oh no
Cos there’s something inside so strong.
The more you refuse to hear my voice
The louder I will sing
You hide behind walls of Jericho away, away, away
Your lies will come tumbling
Deny my place in time
You squander wealth that’s mine
My light will shine so brightly it will blind you. chorus.
(Best rendition World Cup Squad v England 1994).
I played the song again and again in the car, getting more excited each time. Bingo! This was it.
It was a song we could sing as a squad but was equally relevant for the whole sport of women’s rugby
having to succeed against the prejudices of a predominantly male sport.
The first time I introduced ‘Something Inside So Strong to the squad it was an instant success, with Anny Freitas quickly assuming the role of choirmaster and lead vocals. No worries there of course, Anny sings with great passion and harmony.
By the time of the final trial for the squad of 30 for the Championship, song sheets were being handed out
so that everyone could sing wholeheartedly after matches. Singing the ‘So strong’ song would become a significant part of our match ritual, win or lose.
The trial itself showed encouraging signs of our progress on the pitch too. Kevin Ferrie, the esteemed Scottish sports journalist wrote at the time:
‘Scottish women’s rugby is progressing at a fair old rate. The spirit in which this trial was played, officiated-over expertly by Scotland’s top referee Jim Fleming, was exemplary, and some of the handling was a joy to watch’.
For the record, the trial score was a convincing win for the Blues in each quarter as the probables conceded no points. Tries came from Francis (3), Cave (2) and Freitas, with McGrandles and Black getting a conversion apiece.
Selection over, we knew we were ready for the World Cup administratively, financially and physically. The new, uncapped names in the squad were Elaine ‘Bobby’ Black a policewoman from Surrey with a cool head and a big boot; Kim ‘Squidgy’ Craigie, a wonderfully skilful and gutsy centre; Heather Lawrie and Irene Wilson, both versatile forwards and Ann Lawson, who remarkably was a scrum half-cum-hooker. No less than 20 of the squad were 24 years old or younger with three teenagers. This meant, Ramsay mused, that we wouldn’t be at our peek for another decade and that most of the players could realistically hope to play in four world cups. Scary thought.
Our world cup adventure began when we gathered at the Cramond campus, just outside Edinburgh city centre on Saturday April 9th 1994.
We were understandably excited, but would need to manage energy and expectation levels cleverly as we did not have our first game until the following Wednesday. This was even more relevant as we had a film crew recording our every move. Gail Porter was the production assistant with the T.V. Company, ‘In Video’ and, I was told, an up-and-coming star. I remember thinking she was small and rather plain in looks and character. Some years later, when I saw her posing naked for GQ magazine I had to compliment myself on my good judgement!
That first morning, with the cameras catching every bit of action, Ramsay and I busied ourselves preparing the main meeting room. We wanted our base to be liberally decorated with past newspaper cuttings from our wins, to have key messages and game plan specifics. Soon we were set for the first talk session.
Roddy began by positioning what we were planning for the training up to the Russian match and our top line thinking on game plan and tactics. Ramsay then detailed to us the administrative bits like where to be when and why, like meal times, press sessions and physio room booking (this was a particular favourite because it often meant the prospect of getting a muscle-relaxing massage from Darren).
My session was all about focus. We could easily fall into the trap of spending all our energies concentrating on peripheral matters like looking good for the cameras. I said that indeed in life in general most people are like floodlights, allowing their energies to be dispersed over a wide indiscriminate area. I suggested for the next two weeks we should be like lasers, focusing on our mission with intensity. As I said this I scanned the faces of the team. The forwards, in general, looked as if they were ready to run through the wall taking the television and flipchart with them, ball or no ball there and then. The backs, more laid back by nature, nodded sagely as if to say ‘seems a reasonable point to me’.
‘That means’, I continued, ‘We need to prepare ourselves mentally and physically to turn on the laser full power when we need to’.
Alison Christie looked as if it was only a matter of seconds before she screamed ‘Ruck’ and would blast through the adjacent row of chairs.
‘Not now’. I said to Ali smiling. She smiled back and winked.
‘To succeed we must play by our imagination not from our memory. We must see ourselves reaching peak performance in every game, each better than the last’. I declared, my voice rising a notch.
I introduced the concept of ‘Kaisen’, a Japanese theory that each day we should aim to improve ourselves bit-by-bit, step-by-step. I said that we should use the call ’Kaisen’ at special moments during matches when we needed to lift ourselves to a different level of performance.
To bring this point to life I took the team through a guided visualisation. First we relaxed through tensing and releasing specific muscle groups and then by deep controlled breathing exercises. As we did this I said repeatedly:
‘Breathing in relaxation, breathing out the tension’.
The more I said it the softer I spoke - matching the slowing down of brain activity and breathing depth.
Then, when it seemed like most if not all the team were in a meditative state, I asked them to picture themselves in the changing rooms at Raeburn Place, calm and quiet as if before an International match. I continued softly:
‘Imagine a big oak chest in the middle of the changing room floor. It’s an old chest with shiny brass
buckles and fittings. There is a key in the lock on the side. As you look at the lock you see and hear
. the key turning slowly. There’s a click and the chest flips open. You can see inside and there are two
creatures you can’t quite make out. As you look more closely you see that one is a small, fluffy pink
elephant. Try and get a clear picture of this in your mind. Now look to the other end of the chest to
see a small figure of a man crouching down with his back to you - naked’.
As I was saying this I was watching the players. They had their eyes closed as we always did in these sessions, but at this moment they were all smiling or giggling too. Then I said:
‘The man is turning towards you and as he stands up you recognise it’s Roddy!’
We laughed, opened our eyes and exchanged jokes with real Roddy Stevenson standing fully clothed before us.
Roddy beseeched the girls not to be too embarrassed by the enormity of his manhood. Lee Cockburn shouted, ‘Dream on Roddy - we’ve all seen it!’
This sort of banter is critical if a squad is going to function well over a sustained period together. It’s why as a coaching team we always liked to keep a healthy dose of humour in all our gatherings. I had used the pink elephant visualisation for fun but also to make a point, which I clarified at the end of the session:
‘If you can sense or indeed get a clear picture of a fluffy pink elephant in a rugby changing room then
you clearly have the imagination to see you yourself playing outstandingly good rugby for Scotland,
no matter who the opposition is. That’s what we’ll do this fortnight, we will score tries, have fun, feel
proud in ourselves and in each other and really surprise a few people’.
Anny Freitas was nodding and smiling and it seemed the right moment to break for the evening. As I had talked through the visualisation, I had held Benjamin, our 18 month-old son on my right shoulder. He had been awake at the start but was snoozing merrily at the end.
‘He’s visualising pink elephants’, I said to Ali McGrandles as we left the meeting room.
‘You bored him to sleep more like!’ she replied, quick as a flash.
Sunday was hectic. We travelled to Meadowbank stadium for official registration and exchanged friendly banter with the English and Welsh squads. There was work to do there too for those members of our squad who were also on the tournament organising committee and the obligatory interviews with the press. I was struck by the difference in interest between this Championship and the first in Cardiff three years before. In Wales, there had been just local interest until the final brought BBC cameras for the first time. In the Edinburgh-based finals we were very much in the public spotlight from the start.
We were back at Cramond and away from prying eyes for afternoon training that day. Not surprisingly it was fast and physical. Maddie picked up a cracking egg-shaped bruise in the middle of her forehead and Micky Cave’s elbow tore a gash in Mac’s cheek. Darren Cornforth was at his best in moments like these. He was good at his job but he also had a flair for nursing injured players mentally. With these two injuries he reassured the players that there would be no lasting damage to their good looks and that they would both be fit for the first match.
Monday meant morning training in units and then to Edinburgh Waverley Station for a team photo shoot for our sponsors. Anny Freitas took the chance to find an artist-cum-hairdresser to carve out a distinctive thistle on the back of her bonce. It stretched from the top of her head down below her ears. So fine a spectacle indeed that she made the main sports photo in the Herald that day with the headline, ‘What a crop forward!’ Kimbo and Pogo were the accessories either side of Anny mimicking disgust.
Back at base camp, Anny was cheered into the meeting room and Ramsay made a joke about his and Roddy’s follicly challenged foreheads. Cramond was proving to be an ideal base all round. We were eating heartily, training hard and then having fun as a group. We were close enough to Edinburgh city for the games and sponsor-calls, but just far enough out to be hard to get at and distract. The venue and facilities gave us plenty of chance to work on team building. I had learnt the hard way with the England squad at the 1991 finals that you can’t afford to have a bunch of subs who are sidelined in every sense for two weeks. It drains everybody. For example, the subs who think they should be in the main team become an increasing emotional burden on their first choice colleagues. Roddy and I made reference every chance we got to the fact that 30 people stride onto the pitch every time we play. Unlike any other squad in the ’94 Championships we achieved this goal, even to the point when the non-playing squad members were more exhausted after the game than those who had played. They shouted so much that most had lost their voices after the first two matches.
Tuesday of week one was nervy. It was the day before our first game. In the evening Roddy gave a simple, reassuring chat in which he reminded everyone to stick to the basics:
‘Focus’, he said, ‘on the game and on your specific job. Ignore the crowd (sure in the knowledge they will be behind us), and do your country proud!’
Lee Cockburn broke the silence by saying, ‘ You’re a poet Roddy and you know it!’ Everyone laughed.
As the players filed off to bed, I sat and had a coffee with Ramsay. I shared my thoughts that we were on the eve of a big performance. The forwards had been rucking brutally in the most recent training sessions. Kenny Milne had got them into the right body position and I had introduced the concept of blasting the first contact and then hitting through the second. We had the support runners screaming ‘Blast’ at the ball carrier just before contact. It had made a big difference to our psychology and dynamic impact and I knew the Russian forwards wouldn’t be able to cope with any sustained ferocity. England had scored just over sixty against Russia on the first day but had never intimidated them upfront. I said to Ramsay if we could get forty against Russia we would post a suitable message to the other teams in the Championship. Ramsay said he would settle for any kind of win because it meant a quarterfinal berth was guaranteed.
HITTING THE HEADLINES
The day of the Russian match passed quickly right up until just thirty minutes before the scheduled kick-off. We were warming up behind the main stand at Boroughmuir’s Meggetland ground when Roddy called everyone together to report that the Russians coach had failed it’s MOT and the game would have to be delayed. The disappointment was audible through the players’ groans and tuts. Ever the optimist I said to Roddy that the disruption would affect the Russians more than us and that we were more likely to catch them cold at the start. Dawn’s mum was interviewed by our documentary crew and said, ‘I feel sorry for us and I feel sorry for the Russians too!’ We didn’t. I got the pack together and reminded them that victory lay in the quality of our rucking and that we could have a strangle hold on the game after just 15 minutes if we start like a cannon ball on speed.
Even Lee didn’t take the chance for a witty retort, everyone just breathed in a little more deeply and nodded thoughtfully. We were ready.
Fifteen minutes into the game and it was over as a contest. The Russian forwards were in disarray with the bulldozing charges from the Scottish pack and the deafening noise we were making whenever we rucked.
The good news from a coaches’ point of view was that we were using this platform to get the ball wide and the first two tries were from wingers Debbie and Sue Brodie. Sue’s was a peach coming from third phase and then running it in from her own half. This got the crowd of 1200 singing ‘Flower of Scotland’ and one of the watching England squad remarked, ‘Shit, they’re good!’
29-0 at half time was better than England had managed in their game against Russia, but we were looking more tired than they had done. We insisted that the intensity we had established should be maintained and that Elaine ‘Bobby’ Black should use her boot more for position and to give our forwards a breather.
There was no holding our exuberance in the second period, although at times we did start to take it on as individuals too much. Nevertheless, we kept momentum pretty well and scored a total of eight tries including two for prop Ali Christie, one each for Micky Cave and Gnomie and a second for Sue. We had performed so robustly indeed that there had been no reason to call out ‘Kaisen’ to the team at any stage. We could save this for another day.
Our post-match celebrations began when, wearing white shirts and tartan trous we sang ‘Something Inside So Strong’ to a packed and dumbstruck clubhouse. The song with well rehearsed harmonies proved icing on the cake to announce to the Scottish public ‘Scottish Women’s Rugby is here and it’s mighty bonny too!’ Part of the celebrations was the traditional exchange of gifts between the sides. The Russian Captain and best player that day was Rimma Lewis, who had Scottish residency and was married to a Scot. Ramsay, Roddy and I had our radar out, knowing that she would be eligible to play for us within two years.
The one sour note from our first game was an ankle injury to Julie Taylor. After x-rays this was diagnosed as a chipped bone and the end of the tournament for Julie. This was a big blow for us because Julie was our most mobile prop and her fitness and speed stood her apart from the norm. We were distracted from Julie’s dilemma when everyone called for hush and the television was turned up. It was Dougie Donnelly on BBC Scotland with an exclusive interview with Kim Littlejohn. Kimbo proceeded to provide her team with more micky taking ammunition than most people need for a lifetime. This was ‘great’, that was ‘great’ and in fact everything was ‘great’, ‘great’, ‘great’
The morning after back at Cramond was ‘great’ fun too. Breakfast was ‘great’, the team debrief was ‘great’. Kimbo was greatly embarrassed. We sat around the dormitory with newspapers spread all over the floor. The headlines made sweet reading:
‘Scots rucking provides base for victory’.
‘Girls kick Russians into touch’.
‘Scotland in the party mood’.
The detail behind the headlines was read out gleefully too:
‘If Francis lit the fuse it was Brodie who brought the tournament to life.’
‘The Scots play rugby they way it should be played; vigorous, dynamic and fun.’
‘The rucking template was laid down by Jeni Sheerin and the others gleefully followed.’
‘Everything about this team and their performance is refreshing.’
Choosing the line-up for the England game was easy, well at least it seemed so to Roddy and I. The format of the tournament meant a quarterfinal place for the top two in each group. That meant with Russia beaten twice we were through already and the England game was insignificant. Roddy and I wrote out our suggested line-up separately and then exchanged notes. The starting 15 were the same for both of us with only one difference for the subs’ bench. We wanted to rest 5 forwards and at least two backs but we kept Dawn Barnett, Kimbo and Mac as players to calm their colleagues and make the key decisions under pressure. We shared our thoughts with Kimbo and she quickly endorsed them.
When we announced the team there was surprise and shock from many in the squad. The immediate reaction of a number of the players was to question why we weren’t playing our strongest team. We responded by reiterating that we were a squad not just a fifteen and that the game was insignificant from the tournament perspective. This was almost blasphemy to some because England is the auld enemy and should be fought at full strength always, or so we were told.
Two players in particular were persistent in their opposition to the selection. Sue Brodie, who we had replaced with the exciting Linzi Burns and Micky Cave, who we had switched to full back. Sue was upset not to have the run out against England and was nervous that it would be seen as being dropped rather than just being rested. Micky was nervous that we might get humiliated by the vastly more experienced England team. Playing full back in a heavy defeat is no fun after all. This was the first rift in the squad, which had reached us as coaches, and it was good to see that the players had the confidence to challenge our selections. We took time to explain our decisions as selectors always should, but we also had the resolve to stick to what was right though clearly not popular.
In the last practice session before the England game, I re-iterated rucking technique so that we would not be exposed against a stronger, fitter team. I handed out a poem I had penned in the morning to the pack and said I wanted the players to read it just before they went to sleep that night:
Player with ball at pace
Stamps in (broad base)
Blast with shoulder -
Pumps with thighs
Drives to ground
‘Ruck’, she cries
Partners bind and squeeze;
Dropping hips, bending knees
Blast with shoulders-
Drive five yards
‘Try given’, he cries.
Lee Cockburn looked at me with a glint in her eye when she read it. ‘Did Roddy write this?’ she quizzed.
‘No, Lee, I was inspired solely by you’ I countered.
‘Yeah right’, said Lee, ‘I’ve never dropped my hips in my life’.
The bus journey to the ground took no more than 20 minutes on a beautifully sunny Edinburgh afternoon.
We played the ‘Something inside so strong’ tape and everyone sang along, some under their breath, others heartily. The back seat brigade gave it full volume. There was Lee, Dawn in shades, Irene, Anny and Ali Mackenzie hanging over the seat in front. Our coach driver for the tournament was a diminutive Geordie called Tony. Tony hardly ever spoke, and when he did he would clear his throat against the microphone like an old concert Hall singer before delivering a short, soft and monotone message. After the Russian match he puffed twice into the mike and said, ‘I’m proud of you girls, that’s all’. As we got off the coach for the England match he said simply, ‘Good luck, girls!’
Are you supporting us against the English then, Tony? Pogo asked in mock Geordie.
‘Yes, but don’t tell anyone!’ he whispered off mike.
The pre-match psych-up was one of the most memorable in my 20 years of coaching women’s rugby. Roddy, calm as ever (on the outside at least), re-iterated game plan, the fact that we were all out there today as one (all of us on the pitch physically or in spirit) and that those with the honour of playing should do so with pride. He looked over to me and nodded to show it was my turn. I walked into the centre of the changing room and crouched down to meet eye level of the seated players. I was silent at first as I checked the looks and body language. I sensed a keen determination but also a nervousness based I suspected for most on the fear of the unknown. Could we compete with England? Will we let everyone down?
I started quietly: ‘Three things I talked to you about earlier. One passion; and passion means I want the ball in my hands - every one of us. That’s passion. Belief; I talked to you about belief. This team against us is going to score points- they never have not - so expect them to score points, but it just re-doubles your efforts to come back and score more. That’s belief. The last point is aggressive tackling. AGGRESSIVE TACKLING’, I gritted my teeth and pointed my index finger to emphasise each of the proceeding syllables,’ Tackle those guys like they have never been tackled in their lives!’
I scanned the faces of the squad and saw a cauldron of mixed emotions - excited, nervous, determined and even worried. Irene Wilson was pursing her lips and blowing short sharp breaths. As she clenched her fists,
beads of sweat glistened on her heavily vaselined brow.
Ali Mackenzie who wasn’t even on the subs bench was nodding with gritted teeth and a glint in her eye. Linzi Burns sat expressionless but with both knees bouncing up and down, punching her fists repeatedly into her thighs. Ali Christie, another star player who was being fully rested, looked like she was about to explode as she tried to catch the eye of any fellow forward who was not staring straight ahead. No doubt she wanted to impart a dose of her aggressive self-confidence to anyone and everyone. Elaine Black was smiling broadly and whispering strong words of encouragement to anyone who looked at her. A policewoman by day, Elaine was used to the calm before the storm and I appreciated the calming, positive influence she had on those around her.
Kim, as Captain, usually gives the players a blast of fire and brimstone in a thick Celtic accent just before the referee calls the teams out. On this day, however, she was unusually and appropriately measured:
‘There are 5000 people out there. Go out and enjoy yourself, and try and give them value for money’.
As we walked out of the tunnel the roar of excitement from the stands was enough to make anyone draw an extra deep breath. Kim had wisely suggested that we walk out heads high, rather than the customary jog cum sprint. It meant we could draw strength from the atmosphere before lining up for the anthems.
‘Flower of Scotland’ was incredible, the one and only time our squad has been drowned out by the crowd’s singing. I can still remember two physical reactions in me at that moment. The first was an involuntary smile of joyous pride watching the squad link arms and flex sinew together. The second instinctive reaction was watering in my eyes as I pick out the facial expressions in each player. It reminded me of watching Steve Redgrave winning his first Olympic gold medal with tears in his eyes. A harder more intense sportsman you won’t meet, but the sound of the national anthem that day and the raising of the British flag highest, was enough to make even those with hearts of stone well up. Playing England has the same effect for most Scots and it makes for a special occasion every time. I knew then why Sue Brodie had been so miffed at being left out; I decided never to suggest that an England match was insignificant again, no matter what the context. The key challenge for any Scottish coach is to harness the innate desire to beat England into calculated, clinical performance.
There were no surprises when Jim Fleming blew his whistle to start the game - we came out guns blazing especially in the tackle and ruck. Pogo and Kim in the centres were hitting chest high and bouncing their opponents two paces back and to the ground. The crowd loved it. Although we struggled to find any real momentum or territory gain thanks to England’s wilier back row (Chambers and Ross impressive as ever), there was parity in the set piece. Our all-new front row of Aitken, Lochhead and Ferguson were having a marvellous time wheeling, shunting and disrupting. Neither side was allowed a platform.
We were outplayed at halfback, however. Dee Mills, a player from my club at Richmond, was standing in for Karen Almond and is at her best when coaxing a set of forwards with clever tactical kicks and punching holes from short pops. She slotted a penalty from the touchline with a coolness, which reflected nearly a decade of experience in the English first division.
The awarding of the penalty was in my view harsh and I said so in my usual unsubtle way. As Dee lined the kick up, Jim Fleming surreptitiously sauntered over to me and whispered:
‘You’re doing your team no favours’.
After the game, Jim gave me some advice, which changed my pitch-side antics forever. He said that referees are very aware of coaches and team managers and that we could either work with them or be seen as antagonists. To work with them meant pre-match briefing, getting players to respond positively during the game to all decisions, and then a post-match debrief. Since that day my most used phrase has been:
‘It’s a good decision, back ten guys!’
England did score a try 5 minutes before half time, which came from a cleverly worked switch by Giselle Prangnell to send Paula George over near the posts.
We made changes in the second half, bringing on flanker Heather Lawrie, scrum half Shiona Macleod and utility forward Susan Grant. To their credit, our focus was maintained well and we only conceded two more tries in the rest of the game. The second was right at the end when Ali McGrandles tried an optimistic long miss pass in our own 22 only to be intercepted by Claire Vyvyan, who scored unopposed.
Such was the youthful exuberance of our team that we were just as joyous in defeat as we had been in victory over Russia. We had the quarter final to look forward to and the little matter of entertaining the crowd from the English game with our rendition of ‘Something inside so strong’.
I had been impressed by England's performance. They too had rested key players (learning from the mistakes of 1991) and had played with control and a clear pattern. This I put down largely to their excellent head coach Steve Dowling. He had experience and technical prowess but also the critical ingredient his predecessors had lacked - people management skills. His squad in 1994 was the best all round team in the Championship and with Steve to guide them I fancied they would put the USA to the sword in the final. I said as much on radio interview with Frances Edmonds that night. This surprised the other studio guests who had heard the Americans had beaten Japan 121-0. ‘England’s forwards will be too much for the Americans’, I said before returning to the more light-hearted suggestion that God must be a Scottish woman given the remarkably good weather we had been enjoying all week.
Mary Peters, the Olympic gold medallist from 1972 was also on the BBC radio program that evening so I didn’t miss the chance to say we played rugby with a smile just as Mary had when she competed in the Pentathlon. By co-incidence, we had been immersed in the Olympian ideal all week as David Hemery, the Gold medal hurdler from the Mexico games had come over to chat to Roddy and I at Cramond:
‘Never limit your goals and aspirations,’ he had said,’ Your mind can imagine absolute success so let it have its head’.
Saturday morning was another chance to bury our heads in the papers. If Jeni had been the heroine of our Russian match, the blond bombshell Pogo Paterson had clearly taken the mantel after her phenomenal tackling against England. The journalists also picked up on a point made in the England Captain’s post match speech. Sue Dorrington, another long-time colleague at Richmond had been given the captaincy for this one off game. She said they had been mightily impressed by the quality of our game and that it proved beyond doubt that the time was right for a Five Nations’ Championship to mirror the men’s tournament each Spring. Sue also took the chance to join Ramsay in making a special presentation to Debbie to mark her 25th international cap. 12 for England, 8 for Great Britain and now 5 for Scotland.
The best article was by Bill Lothian. Under the headline: ‘Equal rights’, he wrote:
‘An official Five Nations Championship for women looks set to be formed after around 5,000 turned out to see fledgling Scotland compete admirably with streetwise England for an hour, before succumbing finally 26-0’
The quarter final against Wales was one I expected we would win. We had grown immeasurably since the 23-0 defeat a mere four months back and I thought we were fresh enough to outplay the Welsh in the last quarter. Unfortunately, the game was scheduled to be played in the borders. This had been done deliberately to try and capture support for women’s rugby in the region, but from a psychological standpoint it was a setback for us. Meggetland felt like our home ground now and we had received fabulous support there twice. Melrose would be too far for the bulk of Edinburgh-based fans to travel and it would mean a long coach journey for our team come match day. It reminded me of when I played for Surrey against Holland. The host federation decided to play the game in the South where rugby is virtually non-existent As a result, no more than 50 spectators turned up and Holland lost any edge home advantage could have given them.
Ramsay understandably rejected my request to have the venue changed. It would have been a bit like touring cricket teams arriving in India to find all the pitches prepared to suit the home side’s exceptional spin attack. What’s wrong with that I would say but in this case we had to bow to the greater good. As it turned out, the lack of atmosphere for the game and long coach journey didn’t help our cause.
In this match, for the first time, our back row weren’t firing on all cylinders. Indeed there were times when it looked like our front row had 6,7 and 8 on their backs. Ali Mackenzie was outstanding, taking three strikes against the head and being held up just short of the line from a break just inside the Welsh half. Debbie Lochhead at loose head was in the thick of the action too, a master at disrupting the Welsh platform in the scrums and mauls. Nevertheless, we weren’t making the pressure count. Pogo and Kim were being double-marked in midfield and the Welsh back row were getting to the breakdown before us. Effectively, the two teams cancelled each other out and for 70 minutes the game remained deadlocked.
Then came a devastating move in the midfield from Wales and they sliced our defence open using the full back who fed winger Kim Yau to score the only try. We checked our watches nervously and gave the order to all the subs to shout ‘Kaisen’ to the players as we lined up to restart the game. It seemed like a nanosecond and the final whistle blew. The dream was over and the pain was palpable. For the first time in a week our camera crew, who had been with us at every turn, kept a distance from us as we went through the ritual warm-down led by Darren. The tears flowed unchecked.
Ramsay summed up our sentiments for the press:
‘It’s an improvement, but it was still a game that could have been won. In some ways that makes it harder to cope with - the realisation that you could do better than everyone expected.
Anny Freitas shared her thoughts with me afterwards so tellingly that it had a big effect on the selection for the shield semi final:
‘My mind wanted to be there first at every breakdown so badly but my legs were half a stride behind my thinking. I just wasn’t sharp enough, and just felt badly winded. I tried to shuck it in but even the ‘Kaisen’ call didn’t inject extra oomph. I guess I hadn’t realised how much mental exhaustion plays a part in a long tournament like this. I felt tired in the head’
Anny had been one of the forwards we rested for the England game so she would be fresh for the quarterfinal.
BACK ON THE ROAD
When Roddy and I sat down to choose the team for the next game we were clear that we needed to focus on having a fresh team for the final if we were to have any chance of beating Canada (ranked no 4 in the world). That meant we had to rest key players again for the match with Ireland, but this time in a game we had to win.
We chose to rest four of the first choice front five again, giving a first start to Kath Vass at tight head. Susan Grant came in at hooker and we played Shiona McLeod at scrum half to give Gnomie a breather.
Roddy said he wanted to see Linzi Burns again on the right wing more to know whether she should be first choice than through any need to rest Sue Brodie again. We knew this would not be popular with the bulk of the squad because of Sue’s standing, but we felt Linzi deserved another chance against opposition less strong than England. The Edinburgh-based players weren’t happy with this selection because (as some of them told me in confidence) they felt Linzi was less of a team player.
To change the build up to the game I introduced another song to the squad. The words at the beginning captured the mood of the Championship plus it was a great one to sing at the top of our voices and with plenty of scope for the theatrical. ‘Barcelona’ by Freddie Mercury and Monserrat Cabayet (spelt something like that) starts slowly:
‘I have this perfect dream, my dream is me and you
I want all the world to see
You are a sensation
My guiding inspiration
And now our dream is slowly coming true’
(Bet rendition: Ali Christie, Saturday April 23rd, 1994)
The Ireland game, again at Melrose, (which is by weird coincidence on the same latitude as Barcelona - on Irish maps at least) was a real nail-biter. We had good platform as ever in the set piece with Donna Kennedy outstanding in the lineout, but again we were struggling to turn pressure into points.
Just before half time Ireland’s best player and scrum half Raeltine Shrieves landed a penalty for a 3-0-interval lead.
Our half time team talk was straightforward:
‘ We are playing well with a platform to win, but we are allowing them to disrupt our attacks by killing at the ruck. Step up the pace by taking quick tap penalties to open up their defences.’
Much to the surprise of the squad we made no substitutions at half time. We had to stick to the plan of resting players and trusting their deputies so that we had a chance to win the final.
Early in the second half, Linzi took a blow to the bridge of her nose and was replaced by Sue Brodie with a point to prove. I was pleased with this twist of fate because Sue had a look in her eyes, which was focused and determined (pissed off too, let’s not deny it).
We camped ourselves in Ireland’s 22 and then when a penalty was awarded for foul play Dawn Barnett taped through the mark and popped the ball to Donna Kennedy. Donna need merely sniff the try line and there’s no stopping her. We were ahead at last. Moments later, Sue was given early ball but with little room outside. She stood her opposite number up and rounded her just inside the sideline for the clinching try. Ramsay and I high-fived, more through relief than joyous celebration. The gamble had paid off.
The players were angry afterwards at the amount of dirty play dished out by Ireland. It was out of character for them but we were told that it was down to their new coach John Etheridge, himself a top player with Blackrock. The great irony now, as I write this from my home in Geneva, is that I captain a rugby team in France called Cern St Genis whose coach is none other than John Etheridge. It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to paint it. The years have mellowed John but I can see why we had had such a battle with Ireland that day. He is a wily coach who is now in charge of the Swiss National team. As I will be eligible for selection for the World Cup prelims next year, I would just like to say that John is a world-class coach and selector.
We were now in the second week of the tournament and had moved base camp to the Grass market in the centre of Edinburgh. This was a nightmare for us because the Hotel was on top of noisy pub with as many built in distractions as you can imagine. Roddy, Ramsay and I were nervous of this as we approached the Shield final. We decided on two distinct strategies. First was to reduce tension by arranging a series of surprise sketches to replace one of the standard team briefing sessions. The second was a refocusing meeting to bring the players’ attentions back to the task at hand. After all, fifth best in the world was worth fighting for.
Roddy booked a hall at Heriots’ School where he is a sports master. It’s walking distance from the grass market and therefore convenient for the re-focusing meeting. I wanted to run a group visualisation session and was initially daunted by the tightness of the seating and the narrow aisles. I pressed ahead despite hearing the players murmuring about feeling like they were back at school.
The visualisation was in two parts. The first was designed to relax mind and body and was a guided journey to a destination where people were close to nature and where they felt totally safe and secure. In the second phase, I asked for each person to call up an image of someone they trusted above all others. At this point I checked everyone’s facial expressions to see how engaged we were. I saw the telltale signs of total absorption. Heads were tilted to one side and some mouths were slightly open. Breathing was very shallow and drawn out and although all eyes were closed I could see rapid activity behind most of them - a sure sign that the images are alive and dramatic within.
This was the time to encourage each person to ask for and then listen to the advice that their most trusted person was giving them about the tournament. After a couple of minutes of silence I asked the team to count to ten slowly and then open their eyes.
The awakening from such deep meditation is like from the deepest, longest sleep; when your eyes are so reluctant to open they need all your energy just to start the process of being prized apart. The reaction was just as I had hoped. We were deep in self-reflective thought, which seemed easily to cut out the bustle and noise of the City centre around us. Roddy concluded the session by stating the time for our pre-match briefing in the Hotel canteen, which was on about floor 15 of the Hotel’s spiralling levels.
Roddy, Darren, Ramsay and I met in the pub beneath the Hotel early to put the final touches to the sketches, we had been preparing for about a week. The best part of the show was actually the element of surprise as the players sat huddled closely together in the small room waiting for the usual pre-match briefing.
Ramsay, as master of ceremonies, welcomed the audience by pulling a curtain back to reveal Darren squatting on a toilet seat pursing his lips and pushing hard. As he did so a big furry voice-mike on a long pole crept into view and Roddy’s deep voice (as interviewer) asked how he was feeling right at this moment. Another highlight of the show was the impression of our madcap supporters Jeni Sheerin’s brother Andrew and her Australian boyfriend. A Louder and more partisan pair you’ll never meet and boy how we loved their pitch-side antics. Then, I did the catwalk as Pogo with tight silky shorts wedged high between my legs and Roddy did the fag-puffing, loose-tongued Dawn Barnett discussing in broad South London accents how proud they were to be Scottish. As the finale, we blindfolded Darren and he tried to recognise the girls just by feeling their legs. We all laughed long and hard. It was a perfect way to send everyone to bed on the eve of our first tournament final.
I nipped out of the Hotel late that night for a meeting with Steve Dowling, the England coach. We had agreed to share notes on our respective opponents. As it happened the conversation was very one-sided with the added value coming all my way. Steve started by telling me his plan for the American game. It was so spot on in my view, I just said, ‘Yeah, that’s sounds good!’ I was supposed to share some knowledge of the American players who I had either coached on seen in club action over the years, but there didn’t seem any point at that moment, Steve had it sussed. He then shared his thoughts on Canada, whom England had beaten in a tough quarter final:
‘They’re a good, well-motivated team with the star players around the fringes of the scrum. Watch out for the scrum half and the Captain Stephanie White, she a real scavenger!’ He concluded our convivial meeting by wishing us luck and saying he expected us to win - we had the better team after all. I wasn’t sure whether he had meant this or whether he was just being polite. I didn’t care at that moment either way as it sent me off to bed with a smile.
We were back at Meggetland for the game against Canada and this gave us a good psychological advantage. We picked what we saw as our most mobile team, although that meant a shortage of front row players on the bench, which was a calculated risk.
We started strongly and Bobby Black slotted a great penalty to give us a narrow half time lead. Ten minutes into the second half the Canadian skipper and flanker, Stephanie White (just as Steve Dowling had predicted) answered by stealing a try from the back of our lineout. Jeni rushed up to me to say:
‘I’m really sorry, you told me to watch out for that and I missed it. My fault!’
She bustled off smiling with a jauntiness that suggested she was about to make amends.
Just after Canada had taken the lead, a second injury to one of our front row players changed the course of the whole match. We were forced to substitute a second prop when Ali Christie got injured. Kath Vass had been our only front row sub and was already on the pitch. We had no experienced front row replacement left. This meant local referee Ed Murray had to order lineouts to be taken instead of scrums. The same thing had happened in a men’s league match earlier in the season. The SRU had ruled that for safety reasons scrums should be replaced by lineouts in such situations. With all our strong back row players on the pitch and lineout superiority (through the magnificent Mags McHardy, Donna Kennedy and Gill Cameron) this played brilliantly into our hands.
Bobby slotted another penalty for a 6-5 lead and sparked a chorus of ‘Kaisen’ from our clock-watching substitutes. With barely two minutes to go Sue Brodie launched an attack from inside her own 22 despite having no support. The crowd screamed out to kick the ball to touch and play out time. But such play is not in Sue’s blood and she set up great field position for our rucking machine. From the third phase, Pogo made a midfield break which carved open the Canadian cover defence. She timed the pass to Jeni Sheerin perfectly and the ebullient flanker crashed over in the right corner. 11-5 and the final whistle blew as the conversion sailed just wide.
We celebrated as if we had won the main event and as if our matches had finished until next season. But Roddy and I planned one more game as a friendly on the morning of the main final. This was important for us because we wanted to give caps to every one of the 30-strong squad, some of who had not played in the tournament itself. As the Swedish coach was a native of Scotland it wasn’t hard to arrange the fixture even though they only had 14 fit players left. We were happy to lend them a local player just to ensure they had a full complement. We won at a canter 60-0 with Kim scoring two of the tries, much to the delight of her team-mates. She was clearly a very popular Captain who had the respect of her peers. In the years to come this game against Sweden was often the subject of heated debate as to should it be counted as a full international for caps. As we had said it was a cap international at the time, the consensus was that it should remain so although I can understand those who take the opposite view. As a frustrated statistician I was pleased to retain the 60-point goal difference it gave us and it clearly meant a lot to the new players.
The rest of the day was a glorious celebration for the sport. There was a big crowd at Raeburn Place for the main final and all the players from the tournament were there in festive mood. The final was a great advert for the game with the vastly different styles of the flamboyant, try not to have any scrums if we can help it Americans and the power pack England team with the outstanding half back combination of Emma Mitchell and Karen Almond. From the off there was only one winner as England so dominated the set piece it made you wonder if the USA had ever practiced scrummaging.
Both Mitchell twins scored tries and Jacqui Edwards the black beauty from Blackheath scored a marvellous
interception, which really got the crowd gong. The Americans scored two tries in first half response, one from Jen Crawford, the tournament’s best player and another from the electric Patti Jervey who made Val Blackett look pedestrian as she burnt her on the outside.
Early in the second half England led 38-13 with Almond kicking majestically. The Americans did salvage some pride late on with two more tries - scored by Elise Huffer and Jen Crawford again, her tenth of the tournament.
The evening celebrations were memorably cut short when a fire alarm went off and we all filed out into the street. When it became clear that it had been a decoy for a robbery the Hotel was closed and we stayed in the street singing ‘Flower of Scotland’ and ‘There’s something inside so strong’ one last time.
When Roddy, Ramsay and I sat down with beer in hand to review the tournament we did so with broad grins of satisfaction. For Ramsay, who was so instrumental in getting the tournament together at short notice, the fact that it had made a profit of around £30,000 was icing on the cake. He was thrilled with the way we had played and by the reaction of the public and press to us. Roddy was pleased with the contribution from the whole squad and that we had clearly learnt a lot in a short space of time and I was ecstatic that we had finished with a trophy and fifth best in the world. The words of the President of Kazakhstan serve as a fitting tribute to the Championship too:
This tournament of youth, sport and beauty will stay a brilliant memory in the hearts of all the participants’
Roddy, Ramsay and I talked about how much we could each commit to the Scottish team thereafter. We were unanimous in agreeing that if we stayed on it needed to be for at least four more years if we were to help the squad reach its potential - or we should step down now? It was a tough call because the sacrifice would be both financial and a strain on our personal relationships. We all had plans to have more children, or in Roddy’s case to start. I knew too that I had been an appalling husband to Debs for the two weeks of the Championship, almost as if I had completely suspended the marriage for that time. I had been so focused on the job in hand I hadn’t given any energy elsewhere, rather like the laser of focus I had demanded of the squad during our first session at Cramond. What was worse, I had also not shown much attention to our two year-old son Benjamin who had fallen sick at the beginning of week two. We were lucky that Debs’ mum, Liz had volunteered to take Ben back to London to nurse him back to health. This wasn’t winning me any brownie points from my family either of course. In hindsight, I was mighty lucky that Debs is such a fiercely loyal and supportive wife. She knew how much the team meant to me and was prepared to suffer in allowing me to continue.
The BBC did screen the thirty-minute fly-on-the-wall documentary of Scotland’s women at the World Championship, on prime time BBC1 no less. ‘Just a Boy’s game’ is a well-constructed piece sympathetically directed by Derek Guthrie, which still evokes glorious memories of a very special two weeks. The highlight for me is the sequence in slow motion (and put to the haunting music of ‘Moby’) of Sue Brodie outpacing the male touch judge in scoring her first try against Russia. Pure magic.
For the 1994-95 season I had accepted the job of coaching four separate sides. I was to stay Head coach at the Richmond club with three senior sides and a junior XV. I was coach of the South East region of England, Scottish Exiles coach and of course Scotland. I justified the four supposedly part-time jobs to Debbie by saying that because she was in all four teams too we would get to see more of each other than we had at the World Cup. OK, it was a pretty weak argument but Debbie at least knew she would be seeing a lot of the ball week in week out because all four sides looked very strong up front, with excellent halfbacks.
It was indeed a phenomenal year for all the teams I was involved in. The Richmond team was quite simply the best club side I have ever seen. We had 15 international forwards to choose from including four Captains of national teams (Wales, New Zealand, Spain and Holland) and the New Zealand player of the year at scrum half, Anna Richards. She could pass from the base of the scrum to outside centre off both hands and could kick the ball half the length of the pitch off both feet. She was also a joy to coach, because she was always eager to learn and to try new things out. In 22 unbeaten matches the side scored over 800 points including 100 against mighty Saracens in the two league meetings alone. Pogo and Mac had so much quality ball all year it must have been like kids in a sweetie shop for them.
For the South East region we had so much strength in depth that we played two teams against separate regional opposition on the same day and trounced both. The Scottish Exiles played Welsh exiles and Irish Exiles and scored 19 tries in two thumping victories.
Indeed, because Scotland won both home nations matches played that year too, I approached the last competitive game of the season (which was Scotland against Italy on April 30th, 1995) with a played 33 won 33 record as coach, and a scoring average of 40-3 per match. Coaching when you are winning every game is like a drug. You need and expect to win but you know that when it ends, the feeling of emptiness is that much harder to swallow.
Whilst I was known for my record keeping and achievement orientation, I had made sure that no one knew the Italy game was the last hurdle for a 100% season. As it turned out we led the Italians at Meggetland 10-9 three minutes into injury time thanks to a cool Bobby Black penalty moments before. And then with literally the last kick of the game; wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get back to the pre-season training session for Scotland in the Autumn following April’s World Championship.
Sitting in the changing rooms at Edinburgh Accies on a cool October morning in 1994, we had that flat feeling you sometimes get the morning after a highly successful party. The atmosphere was starkly different to the last time we had gathered there. For a start there were no kids asking Kim for her autograph and no pressmen scribbling notes about the likely team for the big game.
After the training session was over we gathered in the back bar for the customary chilli, jacket potato and beans (bloody marvellous it was by the way). On the spur of the moment I asked Ramsay to see if he could rustle up a ghetto blaster. We needed to sum up the day and the plans for the season, but I saw it as a chance to re-kindle the spirit we had shown in the previous Spring.
After Roddy had neatly simplified our new game plan under the memorable slogan, ‘Gain line and give’ I stated that I sensed we were all a bit flat mentally and that I had heard small talk suggesting it would be tough to re-generate the same atmosphere we had enjoyed in the World Championship. I said that it would be difficult to keep momentum when we saw each other only rarely, but that we should just listen to a piece of music and see if it still meant anything:
I switched the tape on and the volume up. The familiar jingle of the ‘So strong’ intro came on and the players were transfixed. Three bars in and Anny Freitas asked if she was allowed to sing. That hair on the back of our necks tingle will probably be with 30 of us whenever that song is played until the day we pop our clogs. Nevertheless, Ramsay and I were also aware that there were players at this session who had not been in the World Cup squad and for whom it was far less meaningful. Our task for this season was to integrate the ‘A’ team players much more than we had even considered before.
December 1994 was a very wet month. I was especially grateful to Ramsay for organising our four star Hotel near Cardiff for the match against Wales. It had brilliant sports facilities, which meant we could stay inside for much of the build up to the first double-header we had played. Buzz and Brian Sloan were managing the ‘A’ team and we were staying as much together as possible. Roddy and I had our eyes on a number of players in the second team squad. In the forwards there was Fiona Harrison, Karen Findlay, Claire ‘Smiler’ Muir, Gill Cameron, Cath Edwards and Lisa O’Keefe and in the backs Paula Chalmers, Kim Craigie, Denise Fairbairn, Claire Herriot and Lynne Grant.
I had found a new theme song too since the trip to Holland. I wanted to show the wider squad that we were looking ahead with open minds and wished to build on our successes to date. I had had the tune in my head for ages and the one line, ‘And we’re keeping the dream alive’. It seemed that everyone I sang it to remembered the song but not the group. Many said it sounds like Paul McCartney. Finally I met someone who knew the Group, the one-hit wonders from Germany ‘Freiheit’.
I hunted down a compilation CD that included the tune and then got to work cutting and editing an appropriate video to be set to the music.
As you’ll see, the words are fantastic for a rugby squad motivational video. It enabled me to edit clips of us scoring tries from the first game right up to the ’94 Championships, but also, very deliberately, to add still photographs of those players we were convinced would become essential for our continued success; Paula Chalmers, Rimma Lewis and Denise Fairbairn in particular: I played the video for the first time when we had both squads assembled in the Hotel prior the two matches against Wales.
The opening sequence is in slow motion showing the squad in the Accies changing room meditating prior to a big game. The voice over introduces the theme just before the lyrics start:
‘Our dream is to be cheered by the crowd, where ever we played because of the way we play’…
Tonight the rain is falling
Full of memories of people and places
And while the past is calling
In my fantasy I remember their faces
The hopes we had (chorus)
Were much too high
Way out of reach
But we have to try
The game will never be over
Because we’re keeping the dream alive.
(Best rendition: Iona ‘Maddy’ Ferguson, Boroughmuir, 1996)
As the chorus played ‘The hopes we had were much too high’, I flashed up the words the team had talked about in the goal setting sessions: ‘ENJOY’, ‘SCORE TRIES’, ‘BEAT THE BEST’.
Judging by everyone's reaction, the video had a profound effect.
‘If I’m not in the main team yet, I sure wanna be soon’ was the gist of the feedback, which was gratifying given that was why we played it to our top 40 players rather than just the first choice XV.
The conditions were awful for both matches and with heavy, muddy pitches scoring many points was destined to be difficult for both sides. We emphasised the importance of taking our chances and tackling in numbers. The ‘A’ team started us off with a nail-biting 5-0 win. Denise Fairbairn scoring the only try as Captain within the final ten minutes by jinking blind then open and breaking two tackles in the process. Was this a winger’s instincts coming from a number 10?
In the main game, it was a familiar story of two very evenly matched sides. The key selection change for us was an enforced one. Dawn Barnett had emigrated to Canada mainly she said to gloat about the Shield final win. That meant a new number 8. Donna Kennedy had natural back of the scrum attributes. She likes aggressive physical contact, physical fitness and scoring bulldozer tries. This meant a second row combination of Lee Cockburn and Mags McHardy. This was a winning duo from the start, with Lee’s power and Mags’ athleticism.
In the pre-match chat I had said that we would rather see 100 mistakes and one moment of brilliance rather than no mistakes and no brilliance. Two players responded gloriously to this challenge. First Julie Taylor, back from her ankle injury, ripped the ball free from a maul inside our half and set off. Now Julie is a prop but is fit enough and fast enough to make the international sevens team, so she took a whole lot of stopping.
In fact the final tackle came when she was within one stride of scoring. Wales killed the ruck and we had a penalty in front of the posts. We ran it and failed to cross the line. Roddy would have words about option taking for us later.
The second moment of brilliance was from Gnomie. Midway through the second half, she broke blindside from a maul on half way and chipped ahead. She won the first race to the ball and fly-hacked it on another 15 or so metres. She repeated the trick twice more before diving on the ball as it stopped just over the try line. For those of you old enough to remember the Welsh and British Lions scrum half Gareth Edwards in his prime - the great man himself couldn’t have done it better.
We then hung on to this narrow lead until the end with most of the action deep in our 22. Lisa O’Keefe who had starred for the ‘A’ team earlier came on as substitute for a defensive scrum 5 metres from our line with only moments remaining. What a great way to get your first taste of home nations’ rugby! But to her relief and all of us on the touchline, Ali Mackenzie took the ball against the head and we cleared our lines for the final time. Two 5-0 wins were a great way to repay the pain of the quarter final defeat and gave the first part of the long coach journey back to Scotland a double cause for celebration.
The Ireland game in February couldn’t come fast enough for us, eager as we were to continue to improve our results as well as the performances.
We had loved the feeling of doing laps of honour during the world cup and we knew that this could only be repeated when you play great rugby, rather than just grinding out low-scoring wins. We realised too, of course, that the quality of our play was crucial to attract and retain sponsors and ticket-paying spectators. This is why we established and often repeated our vision:
‘To be cheered by the crowd where ever we play because of the way we play’
In this context we, as coaches, were conscious that our performances were becoming too dependent on our rampaging forwards and that it was time to put greater emphasis on playing a wide game and utilising the flair of our three-quarters. The training session on the Saturday morning before we played Ireland went very well in this respect. Roddy introduced some new moves and we practiced them at speed. One in particular caught the eye. Moving open from set piece, Pogo at outside centre acts as a pivot to release the blindside winger on a short pop back inside. I can’t for the life of me remember what we called it; although I do know we called the same move ‘Wine’ at Richmond.
Roddy also introduced (to the unbridled amusement of the squad) the concept of ‘Bobby’s diamond’. This meant that although we still wished in principle to run every penalty (looking now to feed the backs rather than to bash mindlessly into the opposition pack), an exception should be when the penalty was within kicking distance for fly half ‘Bobby’ Black. Hence, ’Bobby’s diamond. To illustrate the point, Roddy drew a pitch on a flipchart with the ‘H’ shaped posts at either end and then, in a different colour, drew a diamond shape stretching away from each of the posts.
Unfortunately, the wet weather that had plagued us for the Wales match had stuck around for the Ireland game two months later. So much so in fact, that the game had to be switched at the last minute from waterlogged Meggetland to Myreside, the home of Watsonians.
We won the toss and elected to play into the stiff wind. The first half was another close one with Bobby and Raeltine Shrieves exchanging penalties for 3-3 at the interval. A chorus of ‘Bobby’s diamond’ from every player on our team and lots of smiling faces had prefaced Bobby’s penalty, of course, and thumbs thrust skyward. Blimey, were we learning composure on the ball at last?
The second half was just great. We put the unforced errors of the first period behind us and started to get a stream of good possession from Lee Cockburn’s line out dominance. Anny Freitas scored the first try when an up and under was brilliantly caught by Sue Brodie who released Mac and then Gnomie. The scrum, which resulted, was within 8 yards of the Irish line and they surrendered possession to another Mackenzie strike against the head.
From another scrum on halfway, Bobby called the move using blindside winger. Pogo took the early ball from Kim and stood motionless for what seemed like an age. Just as she was about to get clobbered she released a short pop to Mac who arrived at full pace and simply scythed through Ireland’s midfield. She cut left and headed for the corner flag. She was dragged down 2 metres short but Donna and Mags were there to create quick second phase. Gnomie was on hand to scoop up the recycled ball and dart in to score. The Myreside crowd of 600 rose in unison to applaud a gem of a try.
Next came a brilliant solo run from Micky Cave. One of rugby’s most elegant athletes, Micky was at her best given space and the challenge of beating defenders who came at her one by one. So it was this day, as from 50 metres she wove round the Irish defence at full tilt. More cheers from the stands.
Bobby converted as the prelude to wave after wave of home attacks, most of which were coming from the midfield and back three. Two more penalties were conceded by Ireland under immense pressure both within Bobby’s diamond. Much to the frustration of the crowd we went for points even though the game was well beyond losing. They may not have booed if they had known about the diamond.
The final game of the season was the Stella Dry International against Italy, on April 30th back at Meggetland. I worked for Whitbread at the time and got on famously with the Stella Dry brand manager, who easily saw the link between the new, dry and acquired taste of Stella Dry and Scottish women’s rugby. None of us in the squad could make the same connection of course, but we needed the money and we liked the sweatshirts and black and white publicity photographs.
The ‘A’ team had been thumped by Italy ‘A’ the previous day despite great performances from Kim Craigie and Gill Cameron. In the first team, we were looking for and expecting a performance, which built on the second half against Ireland. It simply wasn’t to be.
Italy played a mainly defensive game with a counter punch strategy. They played it particularly well with scrum half Mikaela Tondinelli constantly putting us back 30 metres whenever we gave up possession. She kicked brilliantly all day and although we scored the only try (another sniper's try from Gnomie) Tondinelli’s kicks were enough for Italy to lead 9-7 into the final minute.
At last we did something right. Three, four, five phases of play in their 22 and then a penalty given within Bobby’s diamond. She converted it with aplomb and it looked like we’d got out of jail. One more play and the game would be over. They kicked off long and Ali McGrandles knocked on inside our 22. That wouldn’t have been a problem had Kim not tried to retrieve the ball standing ten feet in front of her. A scrum would have meant the final whistle. A penalty for offside, however, needs to be taken. Fittingly, Tondinelli slotted it like the world-class footballer she is and Italy had won deservedly.
Ever the optimists, Ramsay and I reflected afterwards that not escaping was better for us in the long run because we could give a much hasher message in debrief and players would be far less complacent about their performance. This was how it went in fact with players freely sharing what they did wrong and what they must do to put things right. The lesson was to serve us well for the next season and beyond.
The news that Debbie ‘Mac’ had been two weeks pregnant with our second son at the time of the Italy match was no great surprise for either of us. She had played for England against Wales in 1992 when she was 8-weeks pregnant with Ben and hadn’t noticed.
‘I must admit I felt a bit sluggish in the Welsh match,’ she had said after the Cardiff Arms Park game, ‘But at least the extra weight helped me blast through the defence for a try. I guess it makes Ben the youngest male international ever!’
James Cameron Alexander Francis (born Jan 21st 1996) can argue he was an even younger international embryo.. His birth had been planned so that Mac would have the time to make a comeback in advance of the third world cup. She was to succeed in this ambition, but the journey would be especially difficult given that she had two young sons, an absentee husband and a full time job, not to mention the increasingly stiff competition for places in the squad.
The other ground-breaking news of the summer of 1995 was that the first home nations’ championship had been agreed between the Welsh, Irish, Scottish and English Unions (the French would join two years later).
It was decided that the women’s internationals should be played on the same weekend as the equivalent men’s games, so that we could attract more spectators to our matches. For the first season this meant we would have Wales away again, but England at Meggetland. To say that the squad was excited about the latter is a huge understatement. At least we had three games to prepare for the big one. This was invaluable given that Elaine ‘Bobby’ Black had retired from internationals in order to devote more time to her work and to Gareth her husband, who was also in the police force and rugby mad. They both have been player-Captains and coaches at the marvelous Teddington Antlers Rugby Club, nestled in the sleepy pastures of Bushy Park, South West London.
Every coaching conversation we had in ’95 was in the context of the world cup three years ahead. In this light, we decided to go to Utrecht as one squad. We had an ‘A’ and a full international against Holland organised, and saw an opportunity to try out new combinations mixing the players from both set-ups. We announced this intention to the wider squad by stating that our goal for the trip was to bind the squads more closely together for longer-term benefit. We said that the results of the games were secondary to this intention.
You can imagine that players in the ‘A’ team might suspect that these were just words and that the proof of the pudding would be in the actual selections we made for each of the matches.
For the Friday night game we picked a midfield of Kim Craigie and Kim Littlejohn, which clearly re-iterated the intention to explore new options. That combination and others like Sheila Scott and Fiona ‘Scoots’ Harrison (a particularly frisky and mobile front row pairing) were revelations on the evening. We romped away with the ‘A’ game by 50 points and played at times with real flair and panache. So much so that Roddy and I agreed to play the two Kims in the main game too (until Kim Littlejohn got injured in the dying minutes of Friday’s game)
The injury meant a re-shuffle and the chance to look at the footballing talents of Helen Craig at fullback and Irene Wilson on the flank.
The Saturday game was a real learning experience. They scored a try against us right at the start due I believe to a complacency we derived from Friday night’s romp. Thereafter we were in control without ever looking dominant. Midway through the first half Helen Craig had a penalty chance from 40 metres. The kick, expertly struck, simply flew strong, straight and true right between the uprights 3-5. Helen was another new option for us to consider.
From that moment on, the referee, a local Dutch official gave us no more penalties in Holland’s half of the pitch. We were the team with majority possession and territory. It seemed like every time we breached the Dutch 22 he awarded them a penalty and they kicked the ball to safety again. Our players were becoming increasingly agitated by this one-sidedness, but I kept my words temperate, remembering Jim Fleming’s advice from the World Championship.
‘It’s a good decision Scotland, back ten!’ I repeated through gritted teeth
The game lurched on in a similar pattern into the final 5 minutes. A scrum was awarded within 5 metres of the Dutch line when their defence piled on top of a ruck Donna had set up:
‘Penalty try!’ Ramsay shouted, but inexplicably the ref gave a scrum with a Dutch put in.
Donna stood up from the ruck with a look of venom and disgust. Ali Mackenzie took the strike against the head (as she inevitably did whenever it really mattered) and Donna collected the ball at the base with only one intention.
Donna’s desire to score tries is immense and her body position is usually low enough to reward this intent with plenty of scores. This time, she hit the Dutch flanker with her shoulder at knee height and crashed over the line clutching the ball under her chest. Two Dutch defenders fell on top of her belatedly. When they had rolled off her, Donna bounced up and punched the air only to see the referee putting his figure back five yards and calling for another scrum.
‘Bollocks!’ I shouted from the far touchline as thoughts of Jim Fleming left me. Ramsay said something similar from the stand side, but we knew the decision would not be reversed. Indeed he gave the Dutch the put in again which I think was just incompetence, given that he had said we were held up over the line (which means an attacking put in).
The game petered out till the final whistle to mark a bizarre 5-3 defeat. The Dutch coach, Patrick, a true gentleman and sporting with it, came over to apologise for the refereeing and to say that he saw it as a clear try and that they felt that we had won really. I replied by thanking him for his hospitality and suggested that we let the subject drop and just enjoy the evening.
As it turned out, we had a good time with the Dutch, who were in party mood (no change there then). It was the first international to be played at Utrecht University ground and they had organised a celebratory disco.
During the evening, I took the time to seek out Fiona ‘Scoots’ Harrison and get her feedback about the weekend. It was a great chat in which she told me honestly how the ‘A’ players had felt prior to this trip. It wasn’t particularly positive and centered on feeling under-valued and worse, under-watched. She said that the idea to integrate the two teams so thoroughly for the Dutch matches was very refreshing as well as surprising. For the first time she said she had truly felt part of something special, and that when we had played ‘Something Inside So Strong’ on the coach prior to the matches it had sent a shiver down her spine.
I knew that ‘Scooter’ played at Edinburgh Wanderers in the same team as Paula Chalmers, so I took the opportunity to ask her what Paula’s thoughts were of the main team. Scoots said that Paula was very disillusioned and was finding representative hockey more appealing. I replied by emphasising how much we valued players with the right attitude and that we would pick attitude ahead of talent any day. I said that Paula easily had the skills for a first choice position for Scotland but that I personally had a problem with her attitude. This was the reason we weren’t considering her. Scoots said I should speak to Paula in person about this. I said I would when the time was right. We just needed a sign or two from Paula first.
January 1996 saw our first home nations’ clash at the Old Belvedere club in Ireland. It was memorable because we got tremendous support from the raucous travelling Scots who had witnessed the men’s game the day before. We played exciting rugby too, especially in the backs and won at a canter 21-3.
The team was captained that day by the fiery and skilful hooker Ali Mackenzie, who led by example as ever. Ali is, in my view, the best striker of a ball in the scrum the international game has ever seen. She took ball against the head in every Scotland game she played.
The three tries that day were from backs Micky Cave, Sue Brodie and Gnomie and Helen Craig got two penalties from difficult angles. The Ireland game saw the debuts of Sarah Higgins, the Haddington fly half and Claire ‘Smiler’ Muir, a tireless flanker from Wanderers.
On the same weekend Wales were hammered by England by 50 points, so we naturally thought that beating the Welsh again would be a relative formality for us. Wrong.
There’s something about the Scottish rugby mentality that defies logic. When the team is fully fit and firing on all cylinders it seemingly always contrives to lose to weak under dogs. On the contrary, whenever the nation approaches an international off the back of a big defeat, fielding an under strength team against top-flight opposition, watch out!
Yup, we lost against Wales in a wet and windy Bridgend 11-6, with the only points again from Helen Craig’s trusty boot.
I travelled to Birmingham two weeks later to watch England play France. I think the French felt that only England from the British Isles could provide them worthy opposition that year. What a fantastic game I saw. It ranks with the very best women’s internationals I have seen. (Italy v Spain at Glamorgan Wanderers in 1991 runs it close).
The French were as mean as it gets in the front five with a side picked from the South of France and no doubt carved out of granite. They had a young stand off with a tremendous boot and had come with a 9-player approach to the match. Rough ‘em up in the forwards and then put snow on the ball and batter who ever dares to catch it.
England were magnificent. The ageless hooker Nikki Ponsford put in the most gutsy display from a forward in women’s international rugby - twice she was rucked viciously by the French forwards, twice the stud marks on her back were examined by the referee who had not seen who the culprit was. Nikki just got back up and took them on again, creating two of England’s three tries. 15-6 final score; glorious stuff.
After congratulating Steve Peters, England’s forwards coach I rang Roddy to ask him to step up his mid week squad sessions and make them a physical as he could get away with. I also said we could do with avoiding France for a couple of years too. Roddy duly obliged with the extra training and I saw how much better we looked when I turned up in Edinburgh for the England match weekend.
For someone who puts a great emphasis on psychology I couldn’t have been more delighted with the run up to this match. England beat Wales by 50; we lose to Wales and fail even to score a try. England know I’m at the French game and play awesomely well. We have no injured players in the two squads to face England (Kimbo was back to Captain the side too). It was a perfect background for us to come out all guns blazing.
At the Saturday training session we did two things, which made a big difference come match day.
First, we discussed what our goals should be for the match. As usual, we started off by saying to win of course, and then proceeded to have a debate between those who thought a win might be possible and those who thought it was merely a pipe dream. I concluded that until everyone in the squad believed that we would win, there was no point in setting winning as our collective goal. Gnomie then said something which struck a chord with everyone:
‘England is the big one for us, we know that. But for me what matters is that we can genuinely compete with them. I think our goal should be that we reach the last five minutes knowing there is still a chance we could win. That would mean the scores are close, maybe just one score in it, and that we can finish the game feeling proud of ourselves no matter what the actual result’.
This received unanimous approval and I wrote Gnomie’s words in bold on a flipchart which we put first in the meeting room and then ultimately in the changing room before the game.
I then positioned the physical training session we needed to do. In order to stop England at source we had to repel Gill Burn’s charges from no 8 and to deny Emma Mitchell fastball at nine. I put on a no 8 shirt and said we would practice with me as Gill Burns, both in the lineout and at the base of the scrums. Lee Cockburn rose to the challenge as soon as I had nudged her off her own ball from a lineout. She came back with interest when the ball was thrown in as if an England put in. I talked also to Ali Christie and Julie Taylor, our props, and said,
‘You guys are the key for us to have decent lineout ball. Our jumpers need you to take the ground in front and behind them too.’
As the ball flew in for the next line out I was hit by Lee, Ali and Julie at the same time and although I caught the ball I landed two metres back from where I had jumped from and I couldn’t see the daylight any more.
We then moved on to the scrum. Ali Christie, as tight head was told to lead us with as loud a call as she could muster (pretty fearsome it was too) and then she was to pull down and back with her right hand. At the same time Julie at loose head was to drive hard with her left shoulder. The net effect of this, as anyone who’s ever scrummaged will tell you, is a violent wheel.
‘Why are we doing that? Donna asked.
‘Because it’s a new call,’ I replied, ‘The double whammy!’
The idea was to make the first and any other crucial England scrummage wheel out of control at the first attempt. When the scrum then reforms, we were to go for the most impactful all-8 drive we could muster. The effect is to unsettle and at best even disorientate the opposition who would naturally think you don’t want to compete if you first instinct is to wheel (usually a defensive tactic against stronger packs).
We liked the sound of this trick, so I moved on to scrummage defence. Again I played Burns and had Anny and Jeni take it in turns to hit me as I came round the corner. I figured they wouldn’t injure themselves provided I deliberately used my thigh as the point of contact rather than my shoulder. I was black and blue at the end of the session, but I knew we were ready.
The backs had Sarah Higgins at fly half, McGrandles and Kim in the centre with Pogo and Helen Craig on the wings. This was a tactical move with Helen in the team for her kicking and Micky Cave at full back for her counter-attacking prowess. Roddy, too was pleased with the last practice session. He had the midfield working on loud offensive defence, with Kim the prime source of attack from 13.
Sunday dawned bright and dry and we deliberately arrived at the Boroughmuir ground as close to kick off as we dared. We wanted to spend 5 minutes watching the ‘A’s, then a quick change and warm up before the main game.
There was a real buzz around Meggetland when we arrived. Scotland ‘A’ was leading through a Paula Chalmers’ try. We watched for at least ten minutes because the ‘A’ team were playing brilliantly. Then as we were getting changed for our game, we heard news that the final score was a win for England 8-7. Gnomie’s goal of competing had been achieved by the ‘A’ team and was just the tonic we needed before the main match.
I had watched the ‘A’ game far longer than the main squad players, mainly to watch Paula. Although she tended to take the ball on herself too much and hesitate on her options, she was showing all the signs of the missing link between our forwards and backs because of the speed and length of her pass and her innate self-confidence. The time was coming closer for me to approach Paula - but not this day, we had other fish to fry.
When the game started I knew instantly it was going to be successful for us. England had a scrum in midfield and Donna called ‘Double Whammy’. We wheeled the scrum before the ball was put in. The referee ordered the re-set and Ali Christie called us in again. As an eight, we squeezed dipped and accelerated upwards. The vaunted English pack stumbled backwards and then quick-stepped towards their own line. The crowd reacted to the symbolism by blurting out loud guttural encouragement most of which was incomprehensible.
In the first three lineouts, we made our call quickly and then threw the ball in unusually early. Lee Cockburn took all three ahead and above her marker and we drove the English backwards. We just had the edge of the game in the first period and were awarded a kickable penalty on the half hour. Helen Craig looked unusually nervous before pulling the ball left of the uprights.
Half time arrived with the score 0-0 and a 2000-strong crowd buzzing with anticipation. Roddy insisted on avoiding the corniness of suggesting we might win and rather focused on the need to score points to stay in contention. We needed to provide faster ball from half back to midfield.
Ten minutes into the second half and another penalty for us saw three points from Helen who had composed herself marvellously for this second attempt. Soon after, Roddy replaced her with Sue Brodie in order to increase the possibility of a try.
England were starting to take control, however, by playing a faster game and trying to keep the ball away from touch (Lee was dominating the line-out still). Their plan was working as our defence began to look stretched. They scored and converted a try to lead 7-3 into the last quarter. Then, as the time ticked away, they burst through on the blind-side for a Jacqui Edwards try, 12-3.
If Gnomie’s goal was to be achieved we needed to bounce back with a score of our own. From the kick off we ran at their midfield and recycled. Sarah Higgins chipped the ball deep into their 22 and under pressure they were forced to kick for touch.
I couldn’t hear our call from the far side of the pitch but I was praying for a catch and drive, as we were just 12 metres out.
Ali threw to Mags McHardy standing at 4, who rose impressively high for a clean catch. When she landed we re-grouped behind her and began the drive. The English defence was there in numbers but seemed unable to slow our momentum. As we breached the try line Donna dived through to score.
There was a fantastic reaction to this all around the ground. Donna looked as though she had won the lottery and an Olympic gold medal at the same time and our pack were doing a fine impression of the winning team on ‘It’s a knockout’. The crowd was cheering from that moment until the referee signalled the end of the game moments later. They continued to salute us through a lap of honour. Clearly no one watching had missed the significance of us competing on an equal footing with the world champions, not even the English themselves who trudged off the pitch heads bowed as if in defeat. We lost 12-8 and had missed two makeable kicks.
The evening ceremonies and dinner were held at the Scandic Hotel in the City Centre and we agreed to have the post match debrief there before the dinner. Roddy re-called how we had felt at the end of the previous season losing to Italy and the difference in our mood was clear to all.
‘We know we can beat England now’, said Jeni Sheerin. Instead of the usual discord and hesitation everyone wholeheartedly agreed and we concluded that it would be an especially good night to celebrate this fact.
We were particularly chuffed of course because Gnomie’s goal had been achieved and gloriously. We had ended the season on a real high, and were already talking about maybe winning the Championship next year. We knew however that it would be harder against an English side playing in England with less complacency after this close shave. The England Captain’s speech said as much to us. Gill Burns is not only a great player, she is also a tremendous ambassador and she was most gracious in congratulating us on competing ‘at the same level’ with them.
‘We know how good you’re getting, so we’ll be better prepared next time’.
The national press on Monday confirmed Roddy and my assessment, with Alan Lorimer writing in the Scotsman:
‘A magnificent performance from Scotland’s tight five, whose front three took three against the head, allowed the back row to produce a dynamic display. Jeni Sheerin bore into the England defence and in concert with Donna Kennedy, gave the England half-backs no chance to establish any rhythm in attack’.
The summer break was a good time to reflect on how we were developing the infrastructure of the sport and in particular the strength in depth of the senior squad.
Sue Brodie attended the IRB Conference in Canada aimed at paving the way for the future of women’s rugby. The IRB recommended a women’s advisory committee, a funding plan and full commitment to hosting and funding the next World Cup. For our part the SWRU organised a follow-up forum in the Autumn in Edinburgh called ‘Tackling the future’.
The biggest message I took from this event was the disappointing turnout. There were 32 and I knew well over two-thirds of them personally. In fact there should have been two representatives from each club in Scotland and a total more like 70. Thank goodness we had no such issues of turnout in the squad itself.
Competition for places was in fact steadily growing. Rimma Lewis had become eligible to play for us - and a stronger, more physically committed back you’ll never meet. Rimma is one of those players you thank God is on your team when you trot out of the changing room. She relishes contact in attack and defence and plays better the harder the battle gets.
Moreover, it was time to talk with Paula Chalmers. Scooter had kindly passed on Paula’s home phone number to me, and I called her one weekend.
Paula was open and honest from the start of the conversation. I said I was calling to share with her my impression of her as a player and person and the amount of potential I felt was there. I got straight to the point too:
‘Paula you are a real frustration to me and the other coaches. You have bags of talent, self- confidence and a keen competitive spirit, but to my mind, a dodgy attitude to go with these. You seem to have a hot/cold commitment to rugby and to the Scotland team especially’.
(Paula is also a fine hockey player and split her club time between the two sports).
For her part, Paula was just as direct:
‘ I feel I have not been given a chance with the main team and have been unfairly treated because the incumbents are allowed to play game after game without their understudies getting a look in. It doesn’t feel like I’ll ever be given a go’.
When I questioned this by saying that she could have spoken to Roddy or I about this, she said it was simply not in her nature - she preferred to get on with playing and let the selectors sort out these kinds of issues for themselves.
When we finished the call I reiterated that if she showed full commitment to rugby and to the Scotland team she would get her chance. I was delighted with the outcome of the phone call and felt instinctively that Paula would soon be a key part of our first choice XV. This was an essential addition to the first team. We needed another first-rate scrumhalf and Paula's pass would be a real bonus.
The summer coaches’ meetings were fruitful as well. From two gatherings, one in London and one in Edinburgh Roddy, Ramsay and I produced a communication pack for the squad which pronounced; ’22 months and counting’ - which was, of course, a reference to the 1998 World Cup.
The document included a detailed schedule of our matches and training camps. It also had a summary of personality profiles we had conducted on all the squad members, the goals each player had set for themselves and the squad, law amendment details and finally an assessment of where we stood against all the other competitive nations. In this assessment, Roddy and I deliberately downplayed our status to avoid complacency and to be provocative.
We assessed all nations against 9 criteria and gave each an overall score. We had the fittest as America, who also won the fastest category (who could ever forget Patty Jervy’s try in the 1994 final?). New Zealand finished top of ‘Most desire’, ‘Best coaching’ and ‘Most focused’. England, America and France scored tops in ‘Most experienced’ and New Zealand and Spain in the ‘Most skilful’.
In the overall ranking we placed Scotland only 8th with New Zealand clearly at No1. In all honesty I saw us 4th behind only New Zealand, America and England, but I wasn’t about to tell the squad that
Ramsay had two sons and wanted to have a daughter, Roddy had a beautiful daughter and wanted a son and I also had two sons and wanted a daughter. That’s all very well, fellas, but when you’re needed at home you’re always away with the Scottish Women’s rugby team.
As for Debbie, she was back playing in the Autumn of 1996 after James’ birth the previous January. She had trained very hard through the Summer and was looking admirably sharp. We had a double-header with Holland in November at home, which gave her a chance to prove herself for the ‘A’ team.
We arranged the ‘A’ match for Friday night with Roddy and I committed to preparing both squads for their respective matches. This had an intense effect on the Francis family. We had with us Ben at 4, James at 9 months and Debbie playing on Friday night and with me coaching both squads. One saving grace was that Debbie has most of her relations in Edinburgh, so we left the boys on Friday afternoon with Ken and Nicky Cameron, Debbie’s cousin.
We rushed back to the Accies ground for the pre-match chats. The ‘A’ team was in a buoyant mood, and I was struck by the confidence of our new prop Fran Drummond. As I went through the psyche up chat, Fran was the one player beaming excitedly back at me. ‘Here’s a likely first teamer!’ I remember noting mentally to myself.
Sure enough when the game started Fran was one of the players demanding the ball in the loose or from tap penalties. She had pace and good technique in contact and was linking well with her pack. Everyone seemed up for this match and with such a good platform, Paula provided ample quality ball for Sarah Higgins at stand off half. We ran in 13 tries in a 71-0 victory, which still stands as Scotland’s biggest ever win. Debbie had a field day on the left wing scoring a strong, fast hat trick. She was pleased afterwards of course, but we had no time to dwell on the game as we raced off to collect the boys from Ken and Nicky’s before returning to the team Hotel for a 1st team meeting.
I left Debs holding the babies with very mixed emotions. She was delighted with the game but gutted not to be involved with the main team. And then there was me racing off to leave her to cope with two young boys both desperate to get out of the Hotel room we were cramped into.
The main match on the Saturday proved quite disappointing, despite a powerful and confident debut from Rimma Lewis and a first cap as substitute for the likeable and talented Sheila Scott as hooker.
The backs played well with Pogo (moved to wing) and Micky Cave both scoring twice, but Kimbo and Roddy were not satisfied. They concluded that we had still played mainly as individuals in the backs and needed to give more depth and pace to the running. Kim also intimated that she felt the training needed to be improved in Scotland to ensure that international matches didn’t feel like such a big step up in terms of speed and intensity. As a result, Roddy agreed to run midweek squad sessions as regularly as practical during the season. These proved a very welcome addition to the schedule for skill development and for squad morale. It was easier for me to see the value that these sessions added than for Roddy. When I came up to work with the forwards after a number of these midweek training nights, the focus and commitment was clearly keener and it meant I could get to the real value-added inputs far quicker.
The evening after the Holland game was enlivened when Easy Jet cancelled the return flight for Karen Findlay (Jocko), Ali McGrandles and Jeni Sheerin. When they arrived back at the team Hotel disgruntled from the airport, Debs and I consoled them by saying they could kip on our Hotel floor. When 9-month old James started crying at 3am and didn’t stop till breakfast, the three Exiles suddenly realised what it was like for Debbie to try a comeback as a mother twice over:
‘Poor Debbie’ was Jeni’s comment, followed by Jocko:
‘Christ, I’m never having kids’: and theMcGrandles’ special:
‘I thought I was sleeping next to an automatic weapon with endless rounds of ammunition’.
The first game in 1997 was at home to Wales on January 12th. It was Paula Chalmers’ first cap just six days before brother Craig would win his fiftieth. Paula had a cracking debut too, in what proved an impressively physical match. Amid the thumping exchange of tackles midway through the first half, Paula broke on the blindside just inside her own half. She drew the winger and fed a super flat pass to Linzi Burns on the right wing. It’s one of the great joys of rugby watching a speed merchant with half the length of the field to cover with the opposition streaming across to try to prevent a try in the corner. Linzi had hit Paula’s pass at full tilt on this occasion and was in overdrive. A really exhilarating score.
The only other try came from good link play between Mags McHardy (a quiet but increasingly effective all round forward) and Jeni Sheerin. Paula darted from the resulting ruck and gave a short, ‘pop’ pass to ‘Jocko’ for the clinching score.
Kim, Roddy, Ramsay and I were delighted post-match. We felt Paula’s pass had given Rimma more time on the ball. We had used the game to experiment with Kim Littlejohn at full-back, but she hadn’t enjoyed playing in such space with irregular prospects of physical contact. We would not repeat that experiment. We were, however, delighted with the ‘A’ team’s progress. They had won well 27-7 with Gill Cameron, Shirley Gray and Sarah Higgins starring.
THE DAY THE FOG LIFTED
Paula was unavailable for the England game at Blackheath due to work commitments in San Francisco. This was a blow for momentum after a strong performance against Wales, but it also meant we could give Gnomie another start to ‘prove us wrong’ in having Paula as the No1. We also brought Micky Cave back to start after her first time on the bench against Wales. This was at the expense of Debbie, who had had a really poor game against the Welsh, looking tired and hesitant. She said that she had spent too much time trying to cover Kim at fullback and had been caught out of position too often.
Stuart Bathgate, who was writing an article about us for the ‘Scotland on Sunday’ magazine, accompanied us on the whole trip to South London. Ever since the World Championship in 1994 we had been given many opportunities to show our stuff to the press. I put this down to two things specifically. First it was that we possessed unusually strong and interesting characters in the squad and second because Ramsay was such a good advocate for us with his contacts in the press. When the article came out with several photographs and glowing accounts of various heroines it was greeted by the squad with approving grins of self-satisfaction.
The day of the match against England dawned very foggy, with an eerie atmosphere hanging over the whole of that area of South East London. It had cleared sufficiently by the time the ‘A’ match started and we again played admirably against the world’s best ‘A’ team opposition. Although we lost 19-8, the real drama and sadness came from a career-ending injury to Frances Drummond. She severed 3 ligaments in her knee in a ruck, and as it transpired, was lucky not to lose her leg. The doctor said it was exactly like a bad motorbike injury when the bone is virtually smashed to bits. This was a massive blow for Fran and for our world cup hopes. I had already penciled her into my likely squad and would have enhanced our reputation for producing dynamic and skilful front five forwards.
Debbie, who had been dropped after the Welsh game, told me afterwards that the spirit had been outstanding in the ‘A’ team and that there were a good half dozen players worth a try in the main team. She also said that the ‘A's benefited hugely from being with the main squad over the full weekend preparation period. It had elevated them in terms of feel-good factor and maturity. She picked out the star performers for us to consider in the first team: Beth MacLeod, Liz Allsop, Gill Cameron and Debbie Lochhead up front and Claire Herriot and especially Denise Fairbairn in the backs:
‘Denise has got confidence, flair, speed and good footballing skills,’ Debbie told me, ‘She also has an international attitude. There’s only one problem I see’. She hesitated then smiled:
‘She's likely to keep me out!’
For someone with a background in International athletics and with strengths in a rugby position, which demands individualism and a degree of selfishness, Debbie has, surprisingly, always been a player who puts team interests first. Moreover, I agreed with every word she said about Denise.
In the main game, we were the better team for 30 minutes but without ever looking like scoring. Rimma was standing unusually deep, but then wasn’t kicking; she was trying to run herself from the pocket. The forwards had territorial advantage, but we squandered it at 10.
England scored either side of half time and then turned the screw to win deservedly 23-3. Rimma scored our only points from a well-taken penalty. The team was rueful and disgruntled in the clubhouse after the game. Not competing with England was fundamentally unacceptable to our growing level of self-concept.
Roddy, Ramsay and I discussed what had been missing long into the night. We had two main conclusions:
First Chalmers must play scrum half, using her stronger pass to give Rimma more time and the confidence to stand much closer to gain line. Roddy would talk to Gnomie and re-iterate how she must keep working on the quality, consistency and speed of passing. Second, we decided that we would consciously not pick our best XV to start every match. We needed last 20 minutes inspiration in the close games which would necessitate some super subs, and in addition we had a healthy degree of competition for the first choice places so it was time to give everyone a chance.
Somewhat radically therefore we agreed to try the tactic for our next game against Ireland by starting with Gnomie and keeping Paula for the second half. For psychological reasons we told only one of them the thought process behind the decision. Gnomie knew that she was no longer first choice but would continue to be given the chance to prove that she was still in contention. We told Paula that she would start on the bench because she had missed the England game and couldn’t expect to walk back into the team.
Throughout this time of transition from Gnomie to Paula as our No1, Sandra (Gnomie) had been a model international. She was absolutely gutted in herself, but equally determined to get her place back. She remained fully supportive of the team and of Paula when she started games. She would always talk openly about the issue with both Roddy and I and was, above all, always honest with herself. She was a joy to coach and to work with and a positive influence on and off the pitch. Gnomie’s knee injury in Sweden in the Autumn of 1997 proved a significant factor in our poor showing at the following year’s World Championship.
The Ireland game on February 23rd was deliberately used as a warm-up trial for the European Championships to be held 8 weeks later. In came Kim ‘Squidgy’ Craigie in midfield, Denise ‘Denis’ Fairbairn on the wing, Irene Wilson on the flank and Beth MacLeod in at No8 with Donna Kennedy moving up to second row, replacing Lee Cockburn. This many changes is nearly always disruptive in a team, both mentally and for cohesion of play. Whilst we had explained our strategy of giving new faces their chance, it was naturally received by some of the incumbents as a real threat and not necessarily right or fair.
The person worst hit against Ireland by this disconnected team was Gnomie. Our forwards were awful in the first quarter. The Front five couldn’t settle to provide a platform and with a nervous Beth MacLeod at No8, Gnomie got a stream of bad ball. The indecision up front transmitted to the whole team and we continued to make errors as if we had never played before. This didn’t help our argument to give youth a chance with players like Debbie, Sue Brodie and Lee Cockburn. I could hear them saying to themselves:
‘You see they can’t do it without us!’
Gnomie was having her worst game for Scotland, partly, as she confided to me afterwards, because she was trying too hard to stake her claim. Ramsay and I discussed taking her off after half an hour, but Roddy said we should wait until half time.
Just before the interval, in a trademark move, Gnomie broke free of a loose maul (which was on the point of collapsing) and darted in and out of the Irish defence for a great solo try. It was especially ironic because Gnomie had the ability - better than any other player in the team - to score from nothing and single-handed. This special talent also meant that she had the unfortunate credentials to make a superb substitute. We could bring her into tight games in the last quarter when one moment of inspiration might be enough to turn potential defeat into last gasp victory.
Roddy’s half-time chat was as masterly as it was brief:
‘ We’re playing as if the opposition are world-beaters and the only way to win is to grind them down in the set piece. Play it fast, keep the ball on the pitch and run them off their sweet little Irish feet’. If I am passion, fire and brimstone in such chats, Roddy is always straightforward common sense.
The second half against Ireland was testimony to Roddy’s tactics and our super-sub theory. It merely served to rub salt into Gnomie’s wounds too. Those next forty minutes were a joyous romp in the unusually warm February sunshine. Paula and Rimma linked impressively carving several gapping holes in an Irish defense, which had never been made to look so vulnerable. Donna Kennedy and Mags McHardy played like extra back row players and Denise on the wing was at her flamboyant best wide out. We scored 22 second half points for our biggest win against Ireland.
There was a special incentive for our first European Championship in Nice in 1997. The seedings for International Women’s’ rugby would be set based on the tournament’s results and would stand until the next Championship in 1999. However, with a squad of only 23 to pick from and with the venue in Southern France, Roddy and I pondered long and hard on selection. The Home Nations had given us some bright new options, but unfortunately Denis was injured in the Ireland game and unable to play in the Euros. Also unavailable, for personal reasons, was the experienced second-row Lee Cockburn. Reckoning on dry, warm conditions we thought we would need more forwards than backs and went for a 14-9 split. To do this we needed to pick utility backs easily able to slot into different positions. For this reason, and quite controversially, we chose only Linzi Burns as a specialist winger. For sure it was a high-risk strategy, not least because Linzi’s track record was one of high commitment and a tally of injuries to match.
This approach meant no place for Debbie Francis or Sue Brodie. I know it felt like the worst kick in the teeth imaginable for two of the most important and influential players in our formative years. Not only were they being overlooked, but were being replaced by non-wingers. It was a risky strategy to treat experienced players like this. It was also harsh because both had been scoring freely in the ‘A’ team games and were still undeniably classy finishers.
There were also negative repercussions on the confidence and motivation for Sue and Debs. They both interpreted this message as the end of their international careers, especially as the management were talking stepping-stones to the next world cup, rather than play your best team now. For Debs it was a double whammy, because it meant she would have to play baby-sitter at home while I could enjoy the delights of competition on the French Riviera. I know if roles had been reversed I would have either refused or walked out on Debs.
‘Don’t kid yourself, Mark, it was a very strong possibility at the time!’ Debs told me a few years later. At the time, the subject was hardly discussed at home and I was blissfully unaware of how furious Debs was and how clinical and insensitive I had been. I satisfied my sense of guilt by resting on the fact that I was supposedly doing the right thing by the team.
On a positive note I was delighted to have three newish, and talented forwards in the squad: Janyne Afseth, a powerful blindside flanker, Sheila Scott, a compact hooker and Claire ‘Smiler’ Muir another tenacious all-rounder.
We were to be shepherded on this expedition by the outstanding physio skills of Amanda Robertson. Her arrival in the main team set up was a huge boost for us in terms of professionalism and her sense of fun. Thanks to Ramsay’s diligence and Roddy and my backgrounds coaching in sport (as well as playing ourselves once upon a time) we were always focused on the complete picture of squad preparation; mental, physical and physiological. That’s why Amanda’s selection was such a canny one. She was authoritarian when it came to preparation for games, but was also fun to be around at all times. This made her a strong addition to the management team and well accepted by the squad:
‘ I want you girls pissing Suave!’ She declared in her first squad pep talk:
‘ I’ll supply each of you with 2 litres of water a day throughout the Championships, and I’ll be testing the colour of your pee to be sure you’re drinking it’.
‘ What’s Suave?’ someone asked from the back of the room.
‘ It’s weak Italian wine’ came the spontaneous reply.
‘Yeah just what we’ll hear from their front row when we pack down’.
Ali Christie has a way of bringing most subjects back to stark reality, and this natural ebullience off the pitch translates into one hell of a competitor on it. She’s one who tends to put her money where her mouth is.
They were 8 teams in the competition and effectively the first match was a make-or-break quarterfinal. The opponents were no push over either, as we had found out when Michaela Tondinelli had slotted a match-winning penalty against us in 1995. Lose again to them in Nice and the whole trip would have been wasted (not least the fact that for the first time we had received significant financial support from the Scottish Rugby Union).
With this background and the fact that we knew our semi final would probably be against Spain, we were determined to leave nothing to chance. The squad rules were Draconian because the forecast for Nice was for unusually warm weather for the week. We banned trips into town and especially to the beach. Whilst sun bathing is clearly relaxing it is also seriously dehydrating. You can imagine that this was a very unpopular rule for a squad with an average age of 23.
Our concern with distractions started as soon as we landed at Nice airport. Our designated guide was a swarthy local rugby player called Roget. When he asked which players would prefer to ride in his open-top car than go in the team bus, Jeni Sheerin was in his passenger seat before he had finished his invitation. Jeni is one of those rare human being with so much exuberance to offer life that she is reluctant ever to switch to ‘go slow’. This is undoubtedly the essence of why she is such an enduring and outstanding player. It was also a constant concern for me during tournaments, where energy conservation is nearly always a key factor come the final Saturday.
What’s wrong with a little bit of flirting I hear you say. Well, nothing of course, in fact a little bit adds to the positive mood within a squad. The key task for players and management is to know when to draw the line. In Nice, the energy, much like the savings in a bank, could not rely on withdrawals alone.
Our Hotel was decent accommodation with a reasonable responsiveness to our requests for unusual quantities of fruit and pasta. It was convenient for restaurants, just two minutes from ‘Le Bar de Rugby’ and fifteen minutes from the training ground and the main tournament stadium. Most of the other teams were relatively close too, which made for some good evening banter when we bumped into them.
The first match, a quarterfinal with Italy was at the main stadium, Le Parc de Charles Ehrmann. The pitch itself is magnificent. It’s flat, wide and grass-resplendent. However the huge stands are some 50 metres from the playing surface. The competition rules stated that all substitutes would have to sit in the stands and be called down to pitch-side at the point of replacement. The only people allowed by the pitch were one coach and the physio. Roddy quickly said that my booming voice qualified me to be at pitch side with Amanda and he and Ramsay would marshal the troops in the stands. This must have been an alien feeling for our squad, because we had established an ethic of everyone living each element of the game whether starting the game or not. This is so much harder to do when you are high up in the stands.
The pre-match training area was completely different to the main pitch. It was mainly just a rock-hard dust bowl with patches of tufty grass or puddles of muddy water from the groundstaffs’ vein attempts to promote growth.
The day of the Italy game was hot and sunny, somewhere in the mid-seventies. We decided to have a short, sharp physical warm-up and then finalise the psyche up in the cool changing rooms. Roddy took the backs who were looking sharp, eager and together. With Paula starting and Rimma, McGrandles, Cave, Burns, Paterson and Littlejohn outside her, we made a formidable line-up. Roddy ran through the tactics again and the key moves. It had clearly been an ideal warm-up as the backs played strongly throughout.
The session I ran with the forwards was quite simply brutal, physically and verbally. We started by hitting tackle bags, ten each person in succession. Then we paired off for full-on wrestling, then tackling. As we did the basic drills, I bellowed into their ears, ‘Lose and we’re nobody. Lose and we might as well go home now. Italy want to destroy your dreams, our dreams - but you can stop them, only you!’
I picked off each player during the breaks for water and calmly re-iterated the role they had. When we re-grouped, I bellowed simple plays for them to practice with the subs as opposition:
‘Line-out, penalty to us, penalty to them, scrum!’
The start line-up was very strong, even without Lee Cockburn. We had Scotland’s most balanced front row in Taylor, Mackenzie and Christie, it’s most mobile second row in Cameron and McHardy and it’s most physical back row in Afseth, Sheerin and Kennedy.
As the players strolled back together to the changing room, I had a quick check with Roddy. He said:
‘The backs are looking very sharp’.
I said something like:
‘We might win by 50 the mood the forwards are in, we're gonna blow their pack away’.
The squad’s theme music for this tournament had not been introduced before we were now sitting in the changing room. There was the usual array of motivational posters cello-taped to the walls and mixture of bags and discarded clothes on the floor. Amid such clutter, I wanted the new theme music to have maximum impact just before we went out to play.
In his chat, Roddy was to the point by saying:
‘Get into their territory and take the points. Just play the way we can’
I followed this by saying:
‘We’re ready to play great rugby today. So let this music show you the way….’
The song is by Queen, from their last Freddie Mercury album called ‘Made in Heaven’. The song is called ‘ It’s a beautiful day’.
Like all great Queen anthems, it’s starts quite slow but builds gradually to a heavy, instrumental climax.
The start has orchestral violins and a dawn chorus of birds, then a piano takes over followed by drums and bass guitar as the sound and momentum build. This, coupled with lyrics which were very apt for playing rugby in the sunshine, made the theme and the dramatic impact for pre-match absolutely ideal:
‘It’s a beautiful day
The sun is shining
I feel good
And no one’s gonna stop me now
It’s a beautiful day
The sun is shining
I feel good
I feel right
And no one’s gonna stop me now
No one’s gonna stop me now
No one’s gonna stop me now
(Best rendition: Sheila Scott, Nice 1997)
In the first fifteen minutes we won the game psychologically. The forwards were positively ferocious in contact and we won each of the first 8 contested rucks (irrespective of which team had taken the ball in). Deep inside Italy’s 22 the defending team killed possession illegally and we were awarded a penalty. Paula calmly pointed to the posts and slotted the kick from a difficult angle.
We would have doubled the score within two minutes in similar fashion but the penalty was reversed when Paula was cautioned for over-zealous use of the boot in a ruck. I'm convinced that in a men’s game the penalty to the offensive team would have stood.
Before the game I had given Jeni a target of hitting their fly half so hard in the tackle that she would have to be substituted. 22 minutes on the clock and Jeni obliged with a tackle which left a bad dead leg As the Italians tried to regroup with a very young looking deputy, Micky scored a neat try taking an inside pass from Kim. Paula converted for 10-0.
On 27 minutes the Italians hit back with a try, which stemmed from a breakaway, which we halted well at first when Kimbo made a fine cover tackle. Nevertheless they sustained the move as Tondinelli darted from the ruck and fed one of their pack for a score she then converted.
This score had been against the run of play and didn’t knock us off our stride one bit, as Paula slotted another penalty and Ali McGrandles scored a try just on half time. 18-7 at the break was healthy and we kept up the brutal tackling into the second half. This time it was Rimma hitting the deputy fly half and leaving her with a shoulder injury from a hard contact with the ground when she fell.
When their number three fly half came on there was an evil look in Ali Christie’s eyes that said that that tally was becoming as important as the try count. As it happens we weren’t finished on either score. Rimma capped a bulldozing display with a fine try, which was converted by Paula. Then we took three more points when Italy collapsed a scrum in front of their own posts. Paula stroked the kick home for a personal match tally of 13, just before we substituted her for Gnomie.
Sure enough their No3 fly half ran ball at Jeni Sheerin and was well shepherded back inside towards our pack. Ali Christie and Donna between them sent her back to the changing room. Fly half No4 was their tallest player and I assumed the deputy No8, sent on as the most likely to take the knocks. As the game came to a close we had the presence to take one more kick at goal to run out time rather than to sap energies by trying to run it Ali McGrandles duly obliged for a final score of 31-7.
This had been an irresistible team display by us. The forwards dominated the set piece and the loose play and the backs scored well-worked tries from the supply of ball they got. Added to this, we took good tactical decisions as witnessed by 16 points coming from the boot. I believe we would have beaten any team in the tournament that day. The key question was could we play like that twice more?
1997 was the year that Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt won Oscars for the brilliant film ‘As good as it gets’. Nicholson uses the phrase just once in the film, sarcastically insulting the patients in the psychiatrist’s waiting room. I use the phrase here genuinely in reference to the European semi final we had that year against Spain.
It was always going to be a special match for me because the Spanish Federation had twice paid for me to go to Madrid to coach their leading coaches. I had instilled two main messages on these trips. First, that the psychological preparation of the team was paramount and second that the backs needed to play in a pattern adopted by the leading coaches in Australia at the time, known as the ‘box’ formation. It called for more inter-passing at higher speeds than classical back line moves. My assessment of the Spanish side was that their strengths lay in playing a faster, wider game and thus the ‘box’ would suit them perfectly. It works particularly well on hard, fast pitches, which is no doubt why the Aussies like it so much.
When we now drew Spain in the semi final, I pondered whether the sessions I had done with them would contribute to our undoing. Their coaching team mirrored ours too; Christophe, like Roddy, was a skilful, calm communicator and backs specialist, much liked by his players and his peers. Tommy was there as the man charged with getting the team mentally right for matches. He is a brilliant motivator who uses goal setting and imagery to prepare the team for excellence. What made matters tougher for us was that the weather was sensational, if you were up for some sunbathing. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the temperatures were forecast to reach 77, unheard of in Nice during the first week in April.
As always, Roddy was clear about the way he felt we could win. He said we should start our lightest, fastest team and have some big hitters on the bench for the last twenty minutes. This had as much to do with the weather as the fact that it was the right way to counteract the Spanish strengths. I was right behind this tactic because I knew that the Spanish would be mentally strong and play an offensive game. We could not afford to be half a yard off the pace in the first half; otherwise the game may have been out of sight for us by the interval. For this reason, we picked Julie Taylor, Mackenzie and Findlay in the front row and Clare ‘Smiler’ Muir with Mags in the second row. Beth Macleod was picked on the flank as an attacking option with great ball skills, as was Kim Craigie at centre, replacing Ali McGrandles. Jocko was our pack leader and was playing an increasingly influential role in getting and keeping the forwards focused.
The game was played at a fully enclosed stadium in the Northern sector of Nice, called the Stade de Ray. The pitch is surrounded by crowd-control fencing, so that the subs clung onto the wire like expectant gladiators. High up behind us were the spectators numbering around 400. In one section, Des Beirne had stationed his full Irish squad, who roared their support for us from the first whistle. This was a huge surprise and bonus for us as we had expected to have a pro-Spanish crowd. In the last ten minutes the Irish made us feel like we were playing at home. What a difference they made.
The game itself more than lived up to everyone’s expectations. It was played at a furious pace with big hits greeting every half break made by either side. This was full-on rugby but with a remarkably low level of unforced errors. At one point in the first quarter we made a neat break from a scrum with Rimma released in midfield. As she slowed to pass inside she was hit so hard the crowd shuddered. And yet as Karen Findlay drove the ball on to the line it was Rimma again who took Jock’s return pass to surge again for the corner. Donna Kennedy latched onto Rimma back and helped the drive to just 1 metre out. We were showing great spirit and cohesion at this point, but then so were the Spanish. They won the line out and cleared their lines.
In the last quarter of the half, the Spanish began to take territorial control. They were looking fresher than us and were working clever moves through the midfield. We were having trouble on our own lineout ball too, mainly because Ali, unusually, was struggling to throw it in straight. I confirmed with Roddy that I was going to take Ali off at half time because without good line out ball we would certainly lose.
Fortunately, our tackling was brave and well coordinated, with Kim’s Craigie and Littlejohn outstanding. Linzi Burns made two cover tackles, which said everything about her pace and determination, but also suggested we were getting a little desperate. Spain scored with 5 minutes to go to half time and converted.
If we could get to half time without another concession, we would make key substitutions in phases and re- assert control. Thankfully, although not without the odd, heart-stopping moment, we reached the interval just one score down.
Spain showed no signs of fatigue or weakness in the first half and made no changes at half time. We brought on two subs: Janyne Afseth with a view to punching holes close to their pack and the wonderfully consistent Sheila Scott to replace Ali MacKenzie at hooker. I announced these changes in the team huddle and Ali Mackenzie looked mortified. We kept the backs the same because they were playing well together and still looked fresh and focused.
In the early second half exchanges we were clearly the better team in terms of territory and possession and were threatening Spain’s line. After 12 minutes of the second period. Linzi Burns made a devastating break from our 10-metre line. She was finally hauled down deep in their 22 wide on the right; we retained possession admirably thanks to Donna Kennedy’s scavenging. From third phase, Micky Cave crashed into the line and through two defenders for one of her gutsiest tries. Paula missed the conversion. 7-5 Spain.
Nine minutes later we were awarded a penalty 35 metres out, 8 metres in from the left touchline. There was a hush and even the Irish stopped singing to watch Paula stroke the ball over for an 8 to 7 lead. Ali Mackenzie chose the moment to challenge me for substituting her and I said:
‘We can discuss it later Ali but basically you weren’t hitting your jumpers and that could have cost us the game’.
She wasn’t satisfied with this and I had to tell her again that we would not discuss this during the match; She looked angry and dismayed when she finally turned away from me.
Ali Christie had been head butting the perimeter fence since the interval, so it seemed appropriate to put her on to try and maintain our forward impetus. Jocko stayed on too because her leadership qualities were crucial in this type of intensity. Spain came back at us with unrelenting self-belief. Tommy had clearly done a fabulous job on their visualization work. With ten minutes to go they justifiably were given a penalty in front of the posts after three waves of attack had been killed by us. Nowadays it may well have been a penalty try, so we settled for just being 10¬8 down with time to come back.
Linzi picked up a leg injury and we had no natural alternative for the wing position (having left Sue Brodie and Debbie Francis at home). Gnomie was a good option for us right then because we needed match winners. It was funny though watching Roddy talk her through her positional responsibilities as the game was going on around her. Despite the intensity of the situation Gnomie smiled broadly through the rest of the game.
Ali Christie took quick tap ball from a penalty won by Jeni Sheerin’s power running. Ali used her great hand-off to give her time to crash through their pack at speed. We were right in front of their posts by now and Micky Cave was screaming for the ball to come left. Paula passed it early but Rimma went for the line instead of passing to the unmarked Micky. Rimma was held up short of the line but was lucky that her selfishness wasn’t too costly because the referee had awarded us a penalty for offside in the midfield.
Paula calmly converted for an 11¬10 lead with 5 minutes to go. In a squad session some months later Rimma was asked when is the best time to pass. In her distinctive Russian accent she replied:
‘When I am bored’.
Spanish heads didn’t drop. They came at us again and again in the final moments of the game. They were deep in our 22 and throwing everything at us. At one point their scrumhalf broke inside Paula from a maul
and only a despairing tap tackle, I think by substitute Gill Cameron stopped her from scoring. Gnomie was adjudged to have been offside on the other side of the maul though and Spain was awarded a penalty wide out. Roddy announced that it was the last kick of the game and the Irish hissed. Spain’s kicker was their excellent winger Inez. I have seen her at kicking practice. She has a neat technique but no real power from her slender frame and I knew that a touchline kick from 30 metres was at the limit of her range. I concluded that after 85 minutes of intense, heat-drenched rugby she had no chance of making the kick. Our subs had drawn a very different conclusion. Half were turned away with their backs to the play and their hands either over their faces on forming the prayer pose. The other half was screwing their eyes at Inez whispering ‘Miss, miss, miss’. I fancy most of the players behind the posts were doing something similar.
The kick was wide right and dropped below the angle of the bar. The referee blew for no side. The swell of joy engulfed all the squad as we converged in a mass on the centre circle. Rimma hit me at speed with a flying bear hug, and Janyne with fists clenched shouted ‘Yes, yes, yes’ at the back row union.
I turned to Roddy with my hand outstretched and said:
‘What a game’.
I can’t for the life of me remember what he said in reply, but he bypassed my hand and hugged me too.
The after-match dinner said everything about the game that had preceded it; Both squads just feasted, too tired to socialize. The Spanish coaches, usually so chatty and hospitable, congratulated us and left. They looked exactly as we would have done had we lost. Stunned.
The coach journey back to the Hotel took ages. The traffic was bad and Ali Mackenzie wanted me to explain why I had substituted her again:
‘I’ve always trusted you Mark, and I thought you trusted me too.’
The simple truth was that Ali was having a bad day throwing in and because it was a crucial element of a very tight game, we had to replace her quickly. Unfortunately, it affected her very deeply at the time and thereafter and I don’t think she ever played her best rugby for Scotland again. This doesn’t in anyway detract from her record. Had there been a British Lionesses team in the 90’s I would certainly have picked Ali because she offers so much in the loose as well as being a brilliant striker of the ball and an accurate thrower. Her loss of confidence was our loss too.
Before I describe the last two days of the 1997 FIRA Championship, here’s my view of the 7 best international women’s’ rugby matches ever played. I chose to write about them here because the semi final Scotland v Spain makes that special list. Two perfectly matched teams playing to their potential. Indeed Spain proved how well they were playing and how mentally and physically strong they'd become when they destroyed France in the 3rd 4th play off 25-8.
In chronological order, game 2 was in the Spring of 1991 when Wales hosted England at Cardiff Arms Park. It was the first time women had played at the National Stadium and the raucous crowd was served up a treat. The early skirmishes followed the usual pattern of Welsh passion subdued by English power and sure enough England took a two-try lead in the first half with tries from Debbie, in her last game for England and the great Karen Almond, England’s fly half. But the second half was quite different from a normal Welsh performance, which tends to fade in the final quarter. Instead it was England who looked vulnerable and the hosts stormed back with two tries of their own. 10¬10. The man in the seat next to me said he would be very disappointed if Wales only got a draw from the game, as they were clearly the better team. I had to concede that he was right. But sport has a knack of confounding you when you least expect it and in injury time England surged out of their 22, inspired by their half backs Almond and Emma Mitchell. From about the fourth or fifth phase, Emma’s twin Jane took a try scoring, match winning pass and the referee’s final whistle followed the missed conversion attempt. Two days later we found out that Debbie was 8 weeks pregnant with Ben, which made him technically the youngest human to score in an international. Lisa Burgess’s belated appeal to have the result overturned because England fielded 16 players was turned down.
Game 3 was from the first World Cup in 1991 and was a midweek game played under floodlights at Glamorgan Wanderers between Italy and Spain. I remember that most of the crowd had never seen a women’s game before and clearly loved every minute. This was partly because there was ferocity in the exchanges borne out of mutual animosity. It was largely due to the amazing number of times the lead changed hands. The seventh and final time we witnessed a new leader was enough for an Italian victory and gave everyone present the chance to draw breath. This game on its own would be reason enough to convince any fan of women’s rugby that World Cup venues should be close to each other so that spectators can see as many games as possible. Barcelona 2002 was a nightmare with venues hours drives apart.
Game 4 was an England home game against France in the Spring of 1994 under floodlights in Birmingham.
I was observing for the Scotland team, but soon stopped taking note to savour the fantastic forward battles and exhilarating back play. France picked their biggest, oldest and let’s face it, ugliest forwards and their youngest, friskiest midfield. I think the fly half was just 18 and under instructions to fire bombs as high into the night sky as possible. England answered France’s route 1 tactics magnificently. Nicci Ponsford, as I have mentioned earlier was at the heart of the forward skirmishes and Paula George, who had a storming game at full back, brilliantly marshaled the English backs. France came back strongly in the second half with their greatest player Natalie Amiel leading the line again. Both teams had used this game as a warm up the World Cup and both showed themselves capable of winning it.
Game 5 is the greatest championship final yet, when England beat the USA 38-23 at Accies in 1994. The fact the it was the last game of such a great tournament added to it, but it was also such a clash of styles with the Yanks trying to run ball from every position and every phase and England controlling, rolling and grinding. The fact that the Americans got four tries with no platform says a lot about their attacking ability. That England won at a canter says much about their class and tactical superiority. It was a real pity that New Zealand weren’t at these finals, because the final would have been even better, and England would still have won.
Game 6 was much more recent and I confess not a game I witnessed personally. It was England’s win over the All Blacks in New Zealand in the summer of 2001. New Zealand had not been beaten in 10 years so to win in New Zealand by scoring a last minute try must be ranked up there with the greatest ever.
Game 7, my final suggestion has to be a New Zealand win, although for many my choice will be a surprise.
It’s the quarterfinal at the World Cup in 2002 when they beat Australia 30¬0. I choose this game as one for the connoisseurs of the game, and which proves what a gifted coach Darrell is. Moreover, the Kiwi pack was marshaled that day by the world’s best No8, Rochelle Martin. Influential at every breakdown, Rochey scored a great try to cap a superb display.
The Australians are big, strong and aggressive, with no little skill either. New Zealand tamed them from start to finish with a degree of control from fly half you’ll only ever see from Anna Richards-the lady is pure class. The Kiwi wins in the last two World Cup finals against the USA and England were both impressive though lacking the all-round excellence of their game against Australia, in which they didn’t over-extend themselves in advance of a semi against France and the final with England. New Zealand’s Quarter Final win was evidence enough for me that this team was the greatest to ever play Women’s Rugby. The real conundrum is the England team of 1994 against New Zealand of 2002: who would win?
Our preparation for the Final had been fraught. We were drained from the win against Spain, fractious in our final training session and severely depleted by injuries. Linzi and Mags McHardy definitely out and Amanda had concerns about a handful of others, especially Donna and Jocko. We would have trouble piecing together a pack and the back three.
The by now traditional coaches’ light-hearted sketches were a welcome respite from thinking about the next day’s Championship final. Ramsay sang a song called ‘I love Roget in the Springtime’ in tribute to Jeni’s Riviera romance whilst Roddy danced round the room as Jeni in a scrumcap. Ramsay then treated us to a language class in Roddy’s inimitable Franglais, ‘ Ave vous bien dormitory dans Le sac?’ he famously asked the Acropole Hotel Manager. Amanda then got Sheila strapped and fully wired up for ultra sound before walking off Suave in hand. And when I played Rimma in shades with a wooly hat, pigtails, waxed legs and a trusty bottle of vodka (which I pronounced with a 'W'). I could hear the real Rimma laughing heartily.
England on the other hand were, as always sober and efficient in their preparations and were in the enviable position of counting only Pip Spivey on their list of wounded. They had had a tough semi final against the host nation and had only won through by one score 15-10. Ramsay had been at the England semi while we were beating Spain and reported that their pack had been very strong but quite predictable. Well tell us something we didn’t know, Ramsers.
The weather was again magnificent on the final day. In the morning, the other six nations had played out for the minor places, leaving just the final to be decided in the heat of the day. Of all the posters in our changing room before the match, the one I can still remember is our tournament goals:
STEP UP our preparation
BE SATISFIED as individuals with our performances
MAKE THE FINAL
When Amanda informed me that Kim Littlejohn’s hamstring was very tight and that she really shouldn’t be playing I knew that ‘Make the final’ would have to be the extent of our achievement that year. We were too depleted to be able to score enough points to win. Containment was the best we could hope for.
Worse was to come in the first scrum. We had been forced to play Janyne at second row because of Mags’ injury but there was a distinct imbalance with Gill Cameron on the other side. England hit the first scrum very hard and we went in at different times. The combination served to crush our front row and Jocko, the pack leader, popped three ribs. Game over.
Needless to say we were valiant in defeat, only conceding one score in the first half. Indeed, after an hour we were only 5-3 down (Paula Chalmers’ penalty), spurred on as we were by Irish support again, this time bolstered by the Spanish and Dutch. England brought on Emma Mitchell at scrum half and she quickly gave England a winning platform. Further tries from Molyneux, the great Gill Burns and Jacqui Edwards saw them home, but not before Micky Cave capped an outstanding individual tournament by scoring wide on the right. The final score of 24-8 does not flatter England, they were worthy winners.
Two weeks after the tournament Roddy and I received two meaningful letters. One was from the Scottish Rugby Union secretary Ian Hogg congratulating the team and reporting that the committee was already considering financial support for the upcoming World Cup. The other was from Kim Littlejohn saying in her view we'd had a ‘great season’. Kim is a perfectionist so her judgment was confirmation that we were making satisfactory progress.
One of the stars of the tournament for us was Janyne Afseth. I asked her what it was that inspired her so much when playing for Scotland and this was her reply:
1. Being the best and always trying to get better
2. Pride- this is the greatest achievement of my life and it’s a huge honor. Playing well and justifying that honor is very important
3. Going to the limit and pushing the limit further
4. Winning and playing to my potential
5. Being part of an amazing team and experience.
When Roddy, Ramsay and I discussed next steps for the team we were united. We needed to build on the excellent team spirit achieved in France. We wanted a summer team building camp and an Autumn international overseas. Over the Christmas holiday period we had two choices. First, we had been invited to play two internationals in America or alternatively, we could go on a Winter training camp in the sun with no competition. It was actually a tough call because America would have been an ideal playing challenge for us. But in the end, we felt that the best preparation for the Home Nations would be T-shirt training in Lanzarote in January.
We chose an Autumn trip to Sweden because they had a Tens’ tournament and an International for us that would allow a large number of players to travel and play and replicate the successful trip we had to Holland with the main and 'A' teams a year previously.
CHAPTER 7: Sun-Blessed
The sun, which had drenched the tournament in Nice, was destined to follow us throughout our build-up for the Home Nations. I visited Ian McGeechan in Northampton to pick his brains about getting a squad just right for a key test or major tour. He spoke lucidly about providing as many opportunities for the players to build a common understanding so that they from bonds of character and shared desires. Then of course it would be down to the management to set and articulate the right tactics to outsmart the opposition.
We gathered at Goldenacre, the home of Heriots’ FP in June to provide a platform for the rest of 1997 and to prepare especially for our campaigns for the Home Nations and then the World Cup in 1998. For this session, we had planned a number of physical and mental exercises for a competition in teams of 8. We had enough squad members present for 5 teams. Each team was awarded points for success rate and time taken on each element of the day. Success depended on the team working well as a unit as well as achieving the specific task, and indeed points would be deducted if the task was completed without utilising the full team.
One of the most amusing exercises was called ‘herding sheep’. The team had to agree a method of communicating without using words and then appoint a shepherd whilst all the others were blindfolded as sheep and placed randomly in the field. Using only non-verbal sounds the shepherd had to guide all the sheep into a small pen located in the field only after the sheep had been blindfolded.
Most teams quickly decided to use a combination of hand claps and whistling, along the lines of one clap means player 1, two means 2 and so on. One whistle means forward, two means back, three means left and four means right. Lee Cockburn’s team chose Lee as the shepherd and she adopted the tactic of leaving Rimma to be the last sheep to be brought in. I had placed Rimma the furthest away from Lee anyway and was watching her begin to get bored waiting, she was twitching and jumping up and down on the spot. Suddenly, while Lee was coaxing another sheep home Rimma started walking away. She was responding to Lee’s signals but had obviously forgotten her number.
Looking at Rimma, Lee thrust her arms out and her eyes to the sky as she tried to get her to stop walking away. Lee made the signal to walk backwards but Rimma kept walking away. Lee quickly gave the signal to walk away and Rimma turned to come back. She took a few hesitant steps and then seemed to realise that she had confused the signals and resumed her track away from the pen. Lee said ‘I’m over here you stupid Russian cow’ incurring a penalty for talking but giving the other teams a good laugh in the process. Lee was by now in a frivolous mood having way exceeded the optimum time for the exercise, so she deliberately sent Jeni Sheerin into the bushes to add to the amusement. Jeni, miss enthusiasm about everything of course, strode into the bushes with several bold bounds as Rimma continued to take tiny steps in random directions somewhere in the distance.
As well as the exercises, we had each of the squad setting their own goals for the coming campaign and capturing them visually. Some of the pictures drawn (e.g. the forwards had an unusual number of daggers in their pictures) were spookily reflected by the results we got when the squad completed a personality profile questionnaire. It was designed for sports teams to indicate relative levels of introversion and extraversion, emotionality, adventure/caution, and decisiveness. As I can recall, in general the forwards were extraverts and the backs introverts, the forwards were abnormally aggressive and the backs adventurous but also paradoxically, quite anxious. When I showed the results to Ramsay and asked for his suggested course of action he recommended that the squad should:
‘Keep taking the pills’.
The outcomes from the team-building day in the Edinburgh sunshine were very positive. We had set a squad goal for the season to reach the World Cup final, winning the Grand Slam along the way. Given the mood in the squad I felt these were realistic, if distinctly stretching goals. Ideal.
Scottish Rugby magazine interviewed Jeni Sheerin after the team-building and quoted her saying:
‘Of course our team wanted to win in each of the exercises, but we knew we were being measured just as much on our full involvement and communication methods. We know as a squad we can beat anyone now. To do that we must be focused and together as a team’.
Our trip to Sweden was to a large extent a players’ trip, containing a Tens' tournament and an International. Roddy was unable to go at all because the twins were imminent, I could only go at the end of the tour due to work commitments and Ramsay was there as a co-coordinator of events rather than as a coach. We were fortunate to have Amanda there to try and keep bodies in one piece, particularly as this was the beginning of August and the grounds were hard. Debbie Francis and Sue Brodie were back in the squad and both played impressively in the Tens tournament, which we won.
Unfortunately we had two injuries during the tournament. Micky Cave was out for the main match and Gnomie had so badly injured knee ligaments that Amanda was concerned for the long term not just the next season.
For selection I was under orders from Roddy to give Shirley Gray and Claire Herriot their first caps and both had performed well in the tens. We wanted to try Claire on the wing to see if we could then use her as a kicking option from there. (This was because we couldn’t see her as a first choice in the midfield). As a result we had to pick just one of Debbie or Sue Brodie on the other wing, even though had it been a crucial game they both would have started. Kim and Ramsay both said Sue was looking the sharper, so she got the berth. When I told Debbie she was benching for yet another non-winger she was cool and said she would take the hint and retire from international rugby. I said I doubted that as she was not a quitter by nature and that she still had what it took in the top flight. She said she was going to enjoy the trip no matter the vagaries of my selection.
As it turned out the team played pretty well, Claire had a good debut including a successful conversion, although never showing the pace we would need on the wing. My report to Roddy said she would make a good squad member but wouldn’t threaten the first choice players. Ali McGrandles had a magnificent match, displaying her all round footballing skills and sealing the performance with 17 points including a well-earned hatrick of tries. Donna Kennedy got two tries and Jeni and Sue Brodie one each as we ran out winners 42-0
The post match was very unusual for us. It was far less formal than normal and for once I was relaxed about the players having a few beers, after all they would have no competitive fixtures for nearly a month. The downside to this approach, coupled with the atmosphere of being on tour with other Tens’ tournament teams from around the globe, was that emotions ran high towards the end of the night.
Smiler grabbed me to ask if in my honest opinion she would make the final world cup squad. I said that nothing was finalized but that if everyone was fully fit she might well miss out due to the competition for places in the back row. This was probably the right thing to say but very much at the wrong time. Claire was distraught.
Across town, Kim Littlejohn was involved in a bit of a scrap when some furniture was smashed. She was ‘letting off steam’ was the first report I heard. Ramsay and I decided we would take no action provided we had no complaints from our hosts. We also agreed not to bring the subject up with Kim, calculating that she was mature enough to self-correct. Ramsay put the point succinctly:
‘We told the players this trip was a chance for them to manage themselves, so if a couple of things have been out of line, it’s not our job to step in and put them right’.
It was wise counsel, because the over indulgence with alcohol was never repeated in the squad and we had never mentioned the episode again, until now.
There’s no better feeling in the world than being on holiday somewhere sunny when you know the weather back home is lousy. It was snowing in Scotland when the tour party left the frozen North bound for Club La Santa, Lanzarote during the first week of January 1998.
Club La Santa is a purpose built sports complex on the rocky coast of Lanzarote on the other side of the island from the airport. It has good facilities for multifarious sports, decent though basic accommodation and enough choice of restaurants not to get too samey over a week. The pool is bloody freezing all year round which actually suits the athletes well. They like to cool their leg muscles down after vigorous exercise by just standing in the pool for ten minutes or so.
It was great to be going away as a team without the pressure of playing a match at the end of the weekend and there was also a strong sense of we’re on a holiday, together. From the perspective of the coaches, we saw the week as a perfect opportunity to get key messages over in a different and relaxed environment. There was no need to cram discussion sessions between training and meals, or drag sessions out a little bit later than some of the players would have liked.
We planned the week out to include one team session on the pitch each day, usually late morning so we could go straight to lunch afterwards. This meant those who wanted to could lie-in and we could have a relaxed lunch in the sunshine when the work had been done.
The afternoons were set aside for team competitions just as we had done at Goldenacre the previous summer. We had matches at volleyball, tennis, soccer, basketball and various other activities. There was also plenty of time to enjoy other sports in the free time available in the afternoon. Some would cycle off campus, whilst others went swimming or wind surfing.
Most evenings we would gather at some point for a drink, or a meal and, on occasion, a team meeting. The real value of being at Club La Santa, however, apart from the team building and the fine weather was the chance to hob-nob with world-class athletes. The best way to get really good at something is to find out who is the best at it and discover what exactly it is they do and how they think and prepare for contests. Then copy the role model as best you can. We were hoping, if nothing else, that the squad would be inspired just by being around people who had no superiors in their chosen field.
Linford Christie was there with his elite squad including Darren Campbell and Jamie Baulch. Denise Lewis was there and was quickly a favourite for the squad because she is so naturally friendly and chatty. Daley Thomson was great to have around too because of his sense of fun and his love of all sports. Moreover, we were keen to enlist input from the British Lion Jeremy Guscott, fresh from the triumphant tour of South Africa. He was in Lanzarote to recover from injury.
The daily sessions on the main pitch were perfect. We all wore t-shirts and shorts and went about our business with humour and intensity in equal measure. There‘s no doubt that the players were inspired to be training next to the running track where Denise Lewis or Jeremy Guscott were doing sprint drills; this is particularly true when they would come over to watch and chat whenever they had finished their set. Daley Thomson had struck up a good rapport with Pogo and Jeni and there was plenty of banter between them every time our paths crossed. By the end of the week Jeni had challenged Daley to a contest at several different sports, including roller-blading, rhythm gymnastics and volleyball. Daley kept saying he was confident of winning against Jeni at any sport except rugby:
‘You’re far too good for me at that Jenners’ he said.
Roddy shared a few glasses of wine with Jeremy Guscott one evening and persuaded him to do a session on defence with our back line. Jeremy duly obliged the next morning by telling us how the British Lions had outwitted the Springboks with a power-tackling tactic of compression in the midfield. He showed us how it worked by drawing various scenarios on a piece of paper and detailing the role of each player. He emphasized the need for awareness and flexibility from the players to respond to each situation:
‘Hmm’ he reflected, ‘ Awareness and flexibility - two words you’d never hear in a South African team talk.
Roddy then ran a session for the whole squad, which enabled us to put into practice what Guscott had just explained. We loved it. Half the players were in body suits playing the role of targets to be tackled. No quarter was given. The truth is had Roddy or I introduced the system, we would have had a mixed response, but from Jeremy Guscott, the buy-in had been complete. Jeremy just asked us not to tell the England ladies where we had picked it up.
By the end of the week, our team sessions were becoming very slick. There was a strong cohesion between forwards and backs and a fluency of play through quicker decision-making. Indeed, we had become so well versed in our moves and patterns of play, that we were beginning to attract audiences for the show. Roddy likened it to when the men’s international team do their final press session before a big game. Everything looks perfect and well drilled, but a little contrived. Nevertheless, it was genuinely exciting to see how far we had come in just a few days. Roddy and I concluded that an injury free season and decent weather and we would be unstoppable in the Home Nations.
Looking at the players who made breakthroughs on this trip, Liz Allsop, the Wanderers prop stood out. She had been honest in advance about her concerns about carrying too much weight, but had shown herself to have a tremendous attitude, good footballing skills and a maturity, which was clearly going to add value to the squad. Moreover, I had a good long chat with Sue Brodie to re-assure her that she had a very realistic shout at making the World Cup, notwithstanding our selection at the previous FIRA Championship, when we had left her out. She candidly shared the fact that she didn’t fancy giving her all to then be left out again. I said that there were never any guarantees, but that if I had to pick a squad at that moment she would have been in it - what happens between then and the moment of actual selection was in her hands. As ever, Sue responded superbly to this challenge in the coming months. It can’t have been easy for her or Debbie, with a nagging voice at the back of their heads saying ‘they want all-rounders now not specialists like us’. It would also mean that both players would have to play most of their rugby in the ‘A’ team and try and to force their way back in to the first choice squad.
The final day at Club La Santa was memorable. The Girls took on the lads (Captained by Daley Thompson) at beach volleyball and ran them real close, 3 sets to 1. I spent the afternoon picking the brains of Ron Roddan, Linford Christie’s coach (what an understated genius Ron is too). Roddy pretended to have lunch with Denise Lewis when in fact we all crowded round one big table. And then to cap off the day we entered the talent competition as a squad and sang ‘Something inside so strong’. It was great to see Anny Freitas leading us in the singing again. Her back and leg injuries had virtually ended her career, but she had had the guts to sign up for this trip and I was still hoping against hope that she would make the World Cup that summer. Paula Chalmers summed up the value of the Lanzarote trip rather well:
‘It’s really opened my eyes just being around some of these athletes to see their dedication and approach. It has inspired me to be better and to prepare more thoroughly. I will be quite different as a result of this experience.’
The next morning we piled all our bags up by the front gate waiting for the airport bus. Daley Thompson was there as promised to pose for some photos and say a last goodbye. As the bus pulled away, we waved heartily like school children on their first foreign adventure. Daley calmly turned around and mooned us.
CHAPTER 8: The 1998 HOME NATIONS. It’s a kind of magic
There’s no better feeling as a coach than to know your team is ready. It had taken five years of focus and passion from Ramsay, the coaches, three great physios and a particularly talented group of players, to get to the stage when we were capable of beating anyone. This was especially satisfying as we approached the 1998 Home Nations’ because it was the first time all British, Irish and French teams had entered, and thus the first opportunity for a real Grand Slam. Scotland, England and France all had realistic chances of the clean sweep.
‘It’s a kind of magic
It’s a kind of magic
One dream, one soul
One prize, one goal
One golden glance of what should be
One shaft of light that shows the way
No mortal woman can win this day
The bell that rings inside your mind
Is challenging the doors of time
This flame that burns inside of me
Is here in secret harmony
(Best rendition, Ramsay Jones March 21st 1998, late…also available on video)
We were mentally, physically and tactically strong. We were thinking and playing like one unit. We were calm and focused in preparation for each of our opponents. We had a good blend of flair and fire. Were we better than all the other nations then? No. Were we world class in terms of the elite of the sport in 1998? Frankly, yes. Only New Zealand was, in my opinion, demonstrably better than us. The essential objective for that year therefore, was clearly for us to realise this potential and become the best side in Europe as a minimum. Grand Slam or bust.
There was a maturity about the squad as we approached the first full Five Nations’ Championship, which meant we could perm any 15 from 30 and have a strong line up. With Gnomie’s injury, the only position where we were light in experience was at scrum half. We therefore needed Paula to last for the first hour at least of all our matches if we were to have a realistic chance of winning the Championship. Now was not the time to try new permutations at scrum half, even though I would love to have seen Rimma there just once.
Fate had it that the sequence of matches was absolutely ideal if we were to get the Grand Slam. We had the two toughest opponents at home, France early on and England in the last match. The way we read the script, this would mean we would reach the last game with both teams unbeaten. That meant England would be going into the game as strong favourites and we would then simply have to repeat the men’s exploits at Murrayfield in 1990.
Our first match was also likely to be the easiest because Ireland was still 3 or 4 players short of a strong team. This would therefore allow us some room for removing the cobwebs before we faced the French for the first time two weeks later.
It was luxurious for Roddy and I to be able talk about the Championship as one entity, with each game a natural stepping-stone to the final decider. Previously we would approach each international solely on it’s own merit. Our communication to the players of course was the complete opposite. It was essential that we did not even mention Grand Slams until we had won three straight matches. One match at a time was the message to the team.
As coaches our objectives for the Ireland game were to establish a dynamic link between forwards and backs and to work a very strong defensive pattern. Both were handsomely achieved because we conceded no points in the match and the links were very good right from the start. Indeed, we showed the strong connection in the first move of the match. Ali McGrandles playing at No15 took the kick off and dribbled it ten metres. The Irish centre collected it nervously and was hit by Jeni Sheerin and then turned by Janyne. The forwards created fast ruck and Paula passed deep to Ali who spiraled a kick to the corner flag. The Irish winger collected it but was forced to kick to touch after pressure from Denise Fairbairn on the wing.
Within five minutes we were ahead when Kims Craigie and Littlejohn created space for Denis to round the opposition wide on the right hand side.
We nearly scored again when Mags McHardy took good lineout ball on the centre line. Paula worked a short pass to Kim Littlejohn and she stayed big for Jeni to rip the ball free. This time Paula fed Rimma who broke inside then out and switched back to Paula. She linked with Sheila Scott who created a ruck just 15 metres out. The ball moved through hands till Ali McGrandles crashed to within a metre. The referee awarded a scrum to us and from 5 metres we controlled the drive for Donna at No 8 to have the simplest task of touching down. It was a marvelous team try indicative of how well we were all playing.
The second half lacked fluency particularly after Ali McGrandles had been justifiably sent off for what the
local papers called, ‘A Riverdance impression on the Irish winger whilst she was on the ground.’
Roddy cleverly substituted a flanker to enable Micky Cave to come on at full back to replace Ali. This was rewarded towards the end of the game when we had a penalty 20 metres from the Irish line. Paula lined her forwards up on the left for the charge but then threw a long pass right to Rimma. She ran an angle towards the flag and dummied both Kims before giving a try-scoring pass to Micky who had hit the line at full speed.15-0.
Justifiably, Ireland had the last say in the game when they put 14 players into a lineout. This was one sign of how inventive their coach. Des Beirne is. He is a strong technical coach who has sleeves full of tactical surprises. On this occasion, Ireland won the lineout and drove over our line. The referee said he was unsighted and disallowed the try. Video evidence clearly shows that it should have been given and we would not have begrudged our hosts this score. It was another case of the referee deciding too quickly, when he could have asked players to get up slowly to reveal who had grounded the ball.
Our players were highly critical of their performances in debrief. This was another good sign of course, especially as Roddy and I had been delighted with most of our exploits. The McGrandles sending off was a complication in terms of PR and the fact that she had added an extra footballing brain to the back line. We hoped her appeal would ensure she could be back in action for the England game at the latest. Ironically, Roddy had already indicated to me that he wanted Micky to play full back against the French anyway, because we would play a more open game, with tactical kicking from Paula at the base rather than Ali and Rimma in midfield. The other tactical change would be to keep Jeni Sheerin on the bench ideally until half time and then bring her on as a super sub.
The Irish weekend had been an all-round success for the squad. Dawn Barnett, who had starred in our first World Cup was back from Canada and had taken on the ‘A’ team as coach. She led them to a fine 8-0 victory, with strong performances from the talented fly half Lisa Hill, Sue Brodie, captain Claire Herriott and Debbie Francis, who scored the match-winning try.
FRANCE, Raeburn Place (February 21st)
When a team is ‘right’ it can under-perform and still deliver. The coaches’ goals for the French game were to be defensively strong again but to attack with more flair. As it turned out we singularly failed to achieve the latter, but once again our defence (modeled on the British Lions’ tactics) was masterly.
The run up to the game was excellent because we had had input from Gavin Hastings which had inspired the team, and Roddy read out an article about how to beat the French by Iwan Tukalo, the former flying wing. The essence of his advice was repeated by Roddy several times in pre-match chats:
‘The French don’t travel well and if you fluster them early they’ll spend the whole game just waiting for the final whistle’.
The French, in fact, started powerfully and shocked us in the early scrums with their ferocity and low body positions. I was genuinely surprised to see our pack going backwards with our strongest front five on the park. I can’t remember that happening before or since. Fortunately, Rimma and Kim Littlejohn were hitting so hard and high in the midfield that the French squandered most of their good ball, knocking on several times in the first quarter. Rimma was penalised for a high tackle on Juliette Esclavar, but thereafter the French centre seemed a shadow of her former self.
I had a quick discussion with Roddy about bringing Jeni on after just 20 minutes to give the pack a psychological and physical lift. We agreed and Jeni went on far sooner than we had planned. We were desperate to wrestle the initiative back from the French and the tactic worked. Jeni took a short pop pass from Donna and from the ruck Paula through a miss pass to Micky Cave who scythed through the midfield to score under the posts Paula converted for an unlikely 7-0 lead on 30 minutes.
The French pulled a penalty back just before half time. 7-3.
The half time chat was illustrative of our frustrations when we said if we can be ahead with no platform think what’s possible if the forwards start producing some decent ball. Our backs nodded encouragingly.
We were better in the second period with Mags McHardy and Lee Cockburn winning ample lineout ball and the back row starting to get to the breakdown first. On the hour, the French collapsed a scrum near their own line and the referee awarded us a penalty try, converted by Paula. Everyone felt it was a harsh decision because it had not been a certain score and it was their first offence, but we had no need or ability to be charitable.
From that moment, the game was ours as the French had lost their appetite for the fray (as Mr. Tukalo had predicted). In the dying minutes, Micky Cave was denied her second try by a brilliant tap tackle from Lafeitte, but was not to be denied from the resulting scrum. Paula fed the perfect pass and Micky was in again. This gave us a great opportunity to bring on Louise Blamire, a feisty scrum half for her first cap to round off a remarkable win 19-3.
Stuart Bathgate writing in the Scotsman summed up our good fortune well:
‘3-0 try count in favour of Scotland was an inaccurate reflection of a match to which the visitors contributed most of the rugby’.
Roddy was equally frank:
‘ There were a lot of mistakes, but the result was pleasing because the French are just one of three teams to have beaten England. We certainly have something to build on’.
I had a long chat with Jeni after the game. She pointed out with some justification that we would have been better off had she started the match. She also said she absolutely hated starting on the bench. I couldn’t deny Jeni’s effect as a talisman for her teammates, nor the fact that she was a key player for us who could ‘last the pace’ of a full game. Nevertheless, I reiterated that we were thinking of using the strategy again, because she had the capacity to turn the big games in the last 20 minutes, which was when we had tended to fade against England in the past. She still wasn’t happy, so I thought it best not to mention it again, especially as we had decided to start her for the Welsh game in Swansea.
WALES, Swansea (March 1st)
Our goals for the game against Wales were to play great rugby and to have won the match by half time. This was pretty ambitious given how badly we played against France and how strong Wales looked on paper: greats like:Lisa Burgess, Dawn Mason, Non Evans, Jackie Morgan, and Bess Evans were all fit and ready.
Moreover, Wales had run England close two weeks before and were gagging for revenge for the 10-0 defeat against us a year before. We traveled to wet and windy Swansea with two teams and had promoted Sue Brodie to the starting line-up in the main squad and Claire Herriot to the bench. It was imperative to show the wider squad that there were still opportunities for everyone to play in a full international. We also promoted Beth McLeod to the blindside, so that we could play a faster game and run the Welsh back row around. Pogo was moved back to her favoured position of outside centre because Kim Craigie was injured.
Pogo loves outside center. She can make bigger hits playing there and gets to see the ball far more often. She was to relish this return, and played a fabulous all round game against Wales, reunited as she was with Kim Littlejohn in our midfield. It was a successful throwback to our first World Cup in 1994.when Kim and Pogo had captured the eye and the public’s imagination.
The conditions for the game were tricky. The pitch was wet and heavy and the wind strong and straight down the pitch. We won the toss and elected to play into the wind. The next 40 minutes were by some margin the best we have ever played. It was a privilege to watch Paula Chalmers control the game from the base with a mixture of short passes to her back row, sniping half breaks, grubber kicks and big, but accurate passes into the midfield. Every time Wales threatened to turn the wind advantage into territory, Paula sent them back on their heals.
The first score came when Rimma fed outside to Kim, who popped an inside pass to Jeni Sheerin on the charge. She surged into the twenty-two and passed to Pogo, who set up Sue Brodie. Pogo looped outside Sue to take a return pass and streak in for a score close to the corner flag. It was a wonderfully adventurous try into the wind.
The second score came from a lineout brilliantly taken by Mags who was jumping at 4. We drove into the 22 and Paula burst open while the maul still had momentum. She cut outside the scrum half then inside the open-side flanker before passing over the full back’s head to Jeni Sheerin. Five yards out, Jeni dived low and through a couple of defenders for another great try. For good measure, Paula converted from close to the touchline for a 12-0 lead.
After 33 minutes we were still holding possession deep in Welsh territory and were awarded a scrum. The drive was strong from our front five, who looked like they were about to achieve a rare pushover against Wales when Donna lost control of the ball at the base. Paula picked up the loose ball and backed into the Welsh back row. Breaking early from the scrum, Mags McHardy drove into Paula and ripped the ball free to dive over for our third try. 17-0 and the game was as good as over well before half time.
We nearly had a fourth try when Paula gave Rimma a long pass off her left hand from quick lineout ball. Rimma dummied Kim and Pogo before coolly taking the gap she had created. She straightened her line of running and was looking either side for the pass, but no one was in close support. She went for the posts but was held up over the line. From the subsequent scrum, we just failed to get a pushover try thanks to brave Welsh defence.
Either side of halftime Bess Evans scored strong come back tries, but now that we had the wind behind us, Rimma kept the ball deep in Welsh territory with some fine long kicking. Our day was complete when we scored the fourth and final try from the long-awaited pushover, brilliantly controlled by Donna Kennedy in the 55th minute. This was our chance to bring on fresh legs too: Ali MacKenzie for Sheila Scott, Sarah Higgins for Kim Littlejohn, and Janyne for Beth MacLeod. Then with ten minutes remaining, Irene Wilson replaced Lee Cockburn and Liz Allsopp, Julie Taylor. We finished as we had spent most of the game, camped in the Welsh 22, and as is often the case with winning teams, looked fresh enough to play another half at least when the final whistle blew. The substitutes had in fact increased our dominance up front with strong showings from Ali and Liz Allsopp.
After the game the referee, on the English panel at the time, said that he had not seen as effective a display in windy conditions from a men’s side in his recent memory:
‘It looked like you had 5 or 6 back row players in the pack and the best scrum half to back them up that I’ve seen in the women’s game’.
He was right. Paula had been truly brilliant in coaxing her frisky pack and in providing such accurate and long passing to Rimma at standoff in wet and blustery conditions. Paula was using the full range of scrum half talents and at the right moments too. True she was feeding off a pack in prime form with three world class line-out jumpers for options and a back row eager to be on her inside for every attack. Nevertheless, it was simply a pleasure to watch a classy athlete at the top of her game.
The former Welsh international, Delyth Morgan also heaped praise on us in her article for the Western Mail on Sunday:
‘The Scots have improved from season to season with a well developed coaching structure, strong rucking power, excellent set pieces and dominant backs. Wales were lucky not to get whitewashed here’.
Emma Mitchell and one or two other England players had made the trip to Swansea to see us at first hand. I was actually pleased for once with such intrusion, because we were playing so well that the destiny of the Grand Slam would lie in our hands not theirs. I believed we were better and I knew we would be tactically smarter. However, we didn’t speak of England in the match debrief. We were true to our strategy of playing down the England game and only discussed the strengths of our first half display, and the lack of defensive concentration, which had led to us conceding our first tries in the Championship. For one of them in particular, Roddy reiterated how important it was for each defender to communicate which attacker was theirs. On this occasion we had been silent and static with no one taking ownership for the hit.
ENGLAND, Inverleith (March 21st)
Roddy and I were determined to keep the build-up to the England game as flat as possible. There was always a danger of over-arousal too early when it came to our matches against England I was therefore delighted to read a quote from Paula in the Scotsman on the Friday morning saying that she felt the run-up to the game had been a bit flat. Bingo.
When the squad finally gathered at the King’s Manor Hotel on the afternoon before the match the sense of excitement made for an electric atmosphere. In the meeting room we said that everything would be done as we normally did in the run up to matches, only this time, a little shorter and a little sharper. We would train for no more than 45 minutes on the grass behind the Hotel and then go by coach to watch the first half of Scotland ‘A’ match against England ‘A’ at Pennypit.
We introduced a change in our tactics as the final piece of the jigsaw. Jeni would be announced officially as starting for us and we would indeed hand the announcer at the ground a team sheet with her name on to start. Jeni however would be our second half super sub. In the meantime, we would play a relatively tight game by using Paula’s searching grubber kicks and Rimma as the battering ram from fly half. We positioned this as not only sound tactics in it’s own right, but also totally at odds with what England would expect. I knew they were planning a game around stopping Jeni’s rampaging runs. We prepared to attack from the inside channel rather than around the fringes of the pack. They would not expect us to target the No10 and when our forwards were on the charge they would take an inside pass from Rimma rather than the customary outside pop from Paula.
We were gloriously focused that evening, coupled with a strong sense of enjoyment. Jocko and Donna trained with their faces painted the colour of the Scottish flag and when the players came to draw their goals on flipcharts there was an unusual amount of laughing and swapping of ideas. One of the backs posters read:
‘Take what they give us and give it back with interest’.
Most of the forwards drew pictures of big players in blue and smaller players in white. No words, just actions. One forward had written a few words drawing everyone’s attention. She wrote simply:
‘Fee fi, fo, fum’.
As we read out the starting line-up we took time to explain the role of each player in the 22 and the rationale for selection: Roddy had not really been in favour of this but he relented when I said that I needed to bolster Jeni’s self esteem and this would do the trick nicely.
Ali McGrandles back in at full back to provide a solid last line, attacking flair and an extra kicking option.
Denise Fairbairn, right wing with a licence to score tries and a great defensive record too
Pogo Paterson at outside center where she prefers to play and stop English attacks at their source
Kim Littlejohn, to lead the line as Captain with a view to score points early
Micky Cave on the left wing to outpace the English backs
Rimma at 10 to blast some holes in Giselle Prangnell, a footballing but frail fly half
(This was of course untrue. Giselle is anything but frail, but this was the language of pre-match psyche-up)
Paula, scrum half, to run the show and dictate the pace.
Donna at 8 to give Paula time and space (Steady Roddy, it’s getting poetic)
Janyne Afseth, blindside to make every ruck and England’s No8 fly backwards
Beth Macleod, open side to be at every breakdown first
Jeni will come on at half time on the flank to elevate our game and finish England off
Lee Cockburn at second row to dominate front ball in the lineout and shunt their pack
Mags McHardy, a spare back row with 100% retention
Julie Taylor, the world’s best loose head to give us a platform
Sheila Scott, to win 100% of our own ball
Jocko Findlay, pack leader to keep us calm and fired up
Ali MacKenzie another dynamic match-winning half time sub
Liz Allsopp, to up the pressure in the front row just when England think they have room to draw breath.
Louise Blamire, to stoke the fire in our forwards as deputy scrum half
Sarah Higgins for flair as deputy fly half
Sue Brodie, to revel in a Grand Slam against England
Irene Wilson, our utility forward and back
We had been more forthright amongst the forwards in discussing who was likely to come on, when and why. For example, I wanted Sheila and Ali to know I expected they would get a half each, but that meant no holding back. We didn’t give any hints about possible backs substitutions because they were less tactical and needed to be more spontaneous. I was convinced that in the pack, the simultaneous introduction of Jeni and Ali at half time would turn a close game into ours for the taking.
There was also an ‘A’ international on the Friday night, which was a one-sided affair. The England team was too strong and experienced for us. The main squad watched only the first half because we needed to have dinner at a reasonable hour. We were heartened to hear later that the ‘A’s had scored a great consolation try through Debbie Francis, late in the second half. I was delighted to see that Debs had responded to non-selection for the first 22 with her customary obstinacy. She was feisty when the team returned to the King’s Manor late in the evening:
‘I beat Chris Diver 1-0 tonight, which is no mean feat…she’s as strong as an ox’.
In fact, I was just glad England hadn’t chosen Chris for the main team. We felt that they had few real weapons in the back line and Chris would certainly have been one, playing either at full back or on the wing.
The mood in the camp on the morning of the big match was right where you would expect and want it to be. We were excited and calmly optimistic. At the final team brief, Roddy ran through the timings of the day, advising the team that we would aim to arrive quite early to give us enough time to acclimatise. He then reiterated our main tactic of attacking their No 10 and turning England on their heals with grubber kicks from Paula around the base.
I then stated that we were ready for England but that they would not be at all ready for us. We had the edge in terms of talent, fitness, spirit, desire and tactics. For the first time against them we would maintain our focus for the full 80 minutes and indeed just get better and better as the game wears on. To embed the spirit of calm aggression we did a brief meditation centred on affirmations:
I am strong
I am calm
I make fast decisions
I am loud
I am taller, stronger, faster than I have ever been
Each player was asked to repeat these affirmations to themselves as we all stood together. The power and passion in our eyes just then, mirrored the words written on the poster by the door as the team filed out:
‘Our light will shine so brightly it will blind you’
I stole a glance at Ramsay and predicted a win by two scores. I was being deliberately conservative to match his pensive mood, when I actually thought we might have a sufficient lead to bring on the whole bench with ten minutes to go.
We only had one slight scare in the warm up before the game, when Jocko needed attention from her club physio Miriam (now the Scottish physio too, of course). We got the all clear and we were set. The dressing room chats were briefer and simpler than normal, all of us basically saying, ‘Just do it’.
Kick off was England’s and we froze as the ball arrived somewhere amid our forwards. In the confusion, Gill Burns recovered the ball and surged into our 22. Two phases later England knocked on and gave us some respite. Roddy turned to me and said:
‘Great start, eh!’
Our first scrum was a beauty. Jocko called a half wheel to force their flanker away from Paula. Donna picked and fed Paula early, and she drilled a kick into touch just inside England's territory.
From that moment the game took on an unfamiliar pattern. `We were superior in terms of possession and territory and we restricted England to counter attacking. At the third scrum, Donna picked the ball from channel 1 and ran straight at Giselle Prangnell, England's fly half. Donna was floored well but we won the ruck and kicked deep into England’s 22. The game plan was being followed to the letter and was working. The English were on the back foot and looking harried and flustered.
It took precisely 11 minutes for us to turn this pressure into points. England knocked on just outside their 22 and we called a simple hands move left. Pogo’s pass to Micky fell behind her, but Kim was looping in support and scooped the ball up in a flash and set off on an arcing run for the corner flag. She was at full tilt and out-paced the cover to dive in gleefully for her first competitive try for her country. The reaction of the team was like a beacon for our whole approach. Most of the players watched the touchdown, turned and jogged back to half way. No big scene or group hugging. The job wasn’t done yet.
England hauled themselves back into the game with a marvelous try after 32 minutes. The admirable Maxine Edwards, a footballing prop from Saracens, surged down the left touchline and drew most of our back line defense. Emma Mitchell cleverly switched play to the right and a fine, looping run from Giselle Prangnell created the space for Pip Spivey to score wide on the right. 5-5 at half time.
As planned we made two substitutions at half time. Jeni and Ali on. The Sunday Times journalist Alasdair Reid picks up the story from there:
‘The prospect of a punishing England effort in the second half quickly receded. They seemed seriously short of appetite. Scotland, however, were ravenous. To the verve of Paterson at outside centre, add the poise of Rimma Lewis, their stand off. The Scots spent much of the third quarter camped on England’s line. Yet despite a clear advantage in the set piece-the scrum destroyed the English opposition and they stole some priceless English lineout ball- they could not quite find the extra ounce of power to surge over the England line.
Roddy described us later in an interview:
‘Dominant except within one stride of their line, when we were either naïve or too selfish’.
One passage of play is illustrative of our control. Donna won a midfield lineout when MacKenzie threw long. Donna charged at England’s fly half and sucked in three other defenders. From the fast ruck, Rimma fed Kim who passed back inside to Jeni blasting at their 10 again. This time England’s entire back row was committed so Mags (who had been our outstanding forward throughout the Championship) picked the ball and drove again to within 5 metres. Paula dummied to go right and sent a long ball to Rimma who popped inside to Ali McGrandles on the angled run. She crossed the line but, under a hard tackle, dropped the ball before touching down. We were dominating in all phases of play.
Gill Burns, England’s captain showed her frustration and was twice penalized for over-zealous use of the boot in rucks. On the second occasion, Paula Chalmers calmly slotted the penalty to give Scotland an 8-5 lead after 69 minutes. England never looked like coming back. The stats speak for themselves; we had 63% of the possession and a remarkable 72% of the territory. Ian McKenzie in Scotland on Sunday wrote:
‘Ironically it was the structured performance of Scotland compared to
England’s sometimes haphazard approach which helped the Scots win the Grand Slam’.
David Hands, the English journalist echoed the sentiment:
‘The slim margin of victory does not indicate Scotland’s all-round superiority’.
Stuart Bathgate then summed up where the result placed Scotland in the world pecking order:
‘Those confounded Kiwis apart, the Scots now know they need fear no one’.
Post match was fun because the Classicals were there after their match and Everton Davis sang a fabulous rendition of ‘Summertime’ followed by Pogo, Jeni, Ali McGrandles and Jocko as the Spice Girls. ‘Tell me what you want, what you really, really want’. By this point, we were in that lovely state called utter contentment; we knew what we wanted, what we really, really wanted, and we’d just got it.
Winning a Grand Slam gives you an immediate entry into the history books. As Ian McGeechan memorably said:
‘You will walk down the street in thirty years and bump into one of your team mates of that day, and look into the eyes and remember the achievement you shared’.
Captain Kim summed up the feelings of the players:
‘I have always dreamed of winning a Grand Slam, it has taken us five years but we’ve done it with a big team effort. I am so pleased for the girls, what a day’.
CHAPTER 9: Whatever happened to the World Cup?
The straight answer is that Bobby Moore lost it and some dog found it. But that's football. The World Cup, which beckoned for the Scottish Women’s Rugby team in 1998 arrived, in hindsight, too soon after the Grand Slam. Just six weeks after the euphoria at Stew Mel, we were all back together in a Motel two miles outside Apeldoorn, a bustling but dull Dutch city one hour's drive from Amsterdam.
We weren't rugby weary or physically drained, just all in need of some time away from having to have every meal communally or share sleeping quarters with a teammate. Psychologically, it would have been easier to peak again if we had had ample chance to soak in the enormity of our achievement in the Grand Slam decider. What had we done to mark the victory? The only official event was a marvelous dinner hosted by our regular pre-match Hotel, the splendidly supportive King's Manor. It's manager, Les Solly and his delightful wife and staff had insisted on preparing us a special Grand Slam dinner with a menu including battered English potatoes, totally creamed Welsh leeks and other such sumptuous puns. Even as we downed our final mouthfuls of Slam Rolly Poly and crème anglais our thoughts and discussions were turning to the prospect of reaching the World Cup Final.
If only the World Cup had been scheduled for September rather than May, we could have had a summer to revel in winning the Slam and to recharge our collective batteries for an assault on the best teams beyond Europe. For some of our players the Slam was indeed more important than the World Championship, especially as they had spent five years dreaming of beating England when it mattered most, whereas winning a World Championship still remained beyond even our dreams. To my mind, Mags McHardy exemplifies the point. Her performances in the Home Nations’ were simply brilliant; she never lost possession in contact, won 100% of her own line-out ball, scored important tries, carried the ball more often than some of our back row players and was always high on our list of tacklers. She played as near faultless rugby as you’ll see from a second row forward. In the World Cup, however, Mags was solid, committed and hard working but uninspired.
The immediate effect of this enforced regrouping so soon after the triumph over England, was that the players drifted back into groups based on friendship or club allegiance. This had not been the case since Lanzarote, after which we had genuinely played for each other, not just the blue jersey. In the management team, we spotted the new trend but concluded that the squad was mature enough to make it's own decisions on such matters. Besides things were going smoothly for us despite the loss of Ramsay for the fortnight due to business commitments. He was replaced ably by the Canadian charm chicken Barb Wilson, who proved a strong influencer for our cause, efficient and great fun to have around.
Our preparation for the fortnight, albeit foreshortened by the Home Nations’, had been thorough. Roddy ran tight skill training sessions on a weekly basis in Edinburgh and we had added to the management team with a transfer coup akin to Liverpool swooping Alex Ferguson from Manchester United. I was convinced we needed a fresh voice to inspire the players and also needed someone to help sharpen our technique in the set pieces. We had completely outplayed England in scrum and line out and I wanted to build on this advantage especially for the likely Quarter Final opponents, America. Could we find someone with strong rugby coaching expertise as well as the technical skills to film and edit our matches? As is often the case, luck conspired to provide the perfect person just when we needed them.
The Irish Rugby Union has a good track record of losing it's best coaches for non-rugby reasons and just weeks before the World Cup, Des Beirne resigned as Head Coach of the Women’s team. I rang Roddy to suggest luring Des into our ranks. Des is the best technical coach I've met anywhere in the World and his intelligent perspectives are valued whether it be by the Referees' Society looking for his feedback on how refs are doing with their interpretation of the games ever-changing laws, or by the forwards in Ian McGeechan's successful Lions' Tour of South Africa. Des in fact, toured the vast distances between Lions' matches by truck, so that he could keep McGeechan's team supplied with the same high-quality scrummage machine for every training session.
Roddy didn't need much convincing, especially when I said Des would not expect to be paid for his time and would require merely some secure space for his video equipment and a pillow for a bed. Roddy said that he would negotiate with the Hotel and then any charge for the additional room could be spread over the whole squad and have an almost negligible effect per head.
My meeting with Des to 'sell' the idea soon turned into an all-night planning session with an in-depth discussion on the players and the likely combinations. Des has a lousy memory for names, but once he knew whom I was talking about was always insightful about opportunities to bring out the best in them, tactically and psychologically. I admired Des' attention to detail and his passion for people and rugby. He remains a tremendous support to me in my business pursuits and as the Godfather to Thomas Andrew Magnus Francis, born March 29th, 2002.
The first task I asked Des to perform was to cut a video recording the highlights of our Grand Slam success. We had footage of all the games bar the home match against France. The final product is a masterly piece set to the Queen song, ' It's a kind of magic':
The video is a glorious reminder of just how well we played throughout the Home Nations; we see the well-worked tries interspersed with dominate passages of play and a cohesion between forwards and backs, which had hitherto long eluded us. Des calls this kind of video 'glimpses of success' to help our coaching input focus on the behaviours we wanted the players to repeat, rather than the natural human tendency to find fault. For the World Cup, Des' prime role was to compile footage of each player so that we could give relevant, visual feedback. He also filmed key players in the opposition so that we could analyse their better moves and plan our defense. Before the Quarter Final, for example, he showed us several clips of Jen Crawford at pace. She is a highly effective runner, but always throws a dummy prior to passing. We saw the clips of her distinctive shimmy over and over again. Des' job as the expert analyser was the final piece in the management jigsaw. We felt ready to lead the team to the final.
We settled into our routine fast in Apeldoorn and were well hosted by the local men’s club. In fact they treated us like celebrities and watched our practices with an eagerness to learn you don't find too often in men. The real drawback about our venue was its isolation from the rest of the participants. I had really enjoyed the Cardiff and Edinburgh championships for the natural camaraderie emanating from international women’s rugby players on tour. This is especially evident on non-match days wandering around the host town.
In Holland, however, we were a full half hour drive away from any other team and there was therefore no atmosphere except on the match days themselves. Unfortunately, this meant that everyone was so focused on their respective games on match days, that we would play, shower, eat and leave. To my mind this misses most of the real pleasure of a once-in-four-years gathering, especially as I have coached players from virtually every squad and enjoy watching them play for their countries. The players too love to watch all the teams, the great and the small and to cheer those in need of a bit of a boost. FIRA's involvement in the Dutch finals certainly added a good deal of prestige to the event, and expertly run referees by Stephen Griffiths. But it lacked heart and soul. To my mind all such Championships should be played in rugby playing nations.
Our first match was against Italy. It was, as usual, a virtual knockout game as two from four would proceed to the next round. The other two teams in our section were the unbeatable Kiwis and the hapless Germans.
It was a cool day for the Italy match and raining heavily by the time of kick-off. It felt more like Melrose than Milan, which was fine by us. Our warm-up was hard and long, in keeping with the conditions and the importance of starting well. The Americans stopped to watch us hitting pads and one commented:
'The Scotch are looking good!'
Lee was tickled by this clumsy spoken English and retorted:
We played in a hurry for the first quarter and although we scored first Italy soon replied with a neat try of their own. The match hung in the balance. Our midfield three were tackling so ferociously that the Italian fly half started to kick all possession. Ali McGrandles, who was now playing top class rugby at full back, decided to run ball back at every opportunity. This option was sound because we were eager for ball in hand and to ruck at pace. The tactic turned the game on its head and a try either side of half time gave us the cushion we needed to open the play up. We ran in three more tries and finished with a convincing 37-8 win. It was good to post such a score for the other sides in the tournament to ponder. At the end of the game, I raised a thumb up to Des, who had been perched high on the stand roof to film the game. Des, who had been huddled against the driving rain for 90 minutes was nodding a 'Yeah, yeah, get me home!' kind of nod.
Just as we had in 1994, we approached game 2 certain of proceeding to the quarter final, irrespective of our next result. Just as we had in 94, we therefore decided to play everyone in the squad who had not played against Italy and thus rest key players like Paula, Rimma and Kim. Unlike in Edinburgh, however, we no longer had a spirit of all for one and one for all. In fact some of the first-choicers clearly looked down on the 'dirt-trackers' as lesser squad members only good for making up the numbers in the unimportant games.
This in itself was no real issue until the second half against New Zealand. We were 23-0 down at half time and had fought bravely against the Kiwis first choice line-up. Roddy and I decided to bring on some more experience for the second period, but instantly saw some of the subs playing half-heartedly. This lethargy seemed to affect everyone else; and we started to chase shadows. We conceded 50 points in the second half and when the players trooped off some were muttering disparaging comments about their colleagues.
In the post match press conference I was asked to explain our tactic of fielding a less than full strength team:
'Frankly the format of the tournament lends itself to such unusual tactics and besides New Zealand are 20 points better than any team here, so we believe protecting our better players is more important than giving up insignificant points!'
The Kiwi Captain said that every international was as important as the next and that they would always play their strongest team right up until they were so clear in the final that they could bring on their benchies to taste the atmosphere of the final!
If anyone had been in any doubt before who was about to win the tournament, they shouldn't have been after that. Stephen Jones said as much in his report for the Times.
Back at the Motel in Apeldoorn the ‘us and them’ rift was clear to see. For over two years the squad had successfully managed to leave all personal issues and feuds in a metaphorical ‘black box’ for the duration of each international gathering. Doubtless, they would re-open the black box on the Monday after each match, but never just before or during the contests. This maturity and esprit de corps had been an essential element of the Grand Slam success.
In Holland the in fighting reappeared. If you were in the first choice XV you were indeed ' in' and anyone else was just not up to scratch (in the eyes of a dominant minority). To the longer serving members of the squad this arrogance from one or two first choicers was like water of a duck's back, but I was concerned with the effect it would have on talented footballers like Louise Blamire, the stand-in scrum half and Sarah Higgins, a gifted all rounder from Haddington. Both were natural choices for the match squad of 21 and would need their confidence to be high when called upon.
We were no longer a happy group with a common purpose, and it seemed like The Accies were against the Wandies, and the Exiles were exiled, or, in some cases too full of themselves. Kim called a players' meeting for some straight talking and we, the managers, were told later that things had been sorted. We thought that the performance in the American match would tell us better than any words how deep this new conviction was.
That evening, Roddy and I chatted long into the night. We toasted Ramsay in his absence and remarked how much great work he would have been doing at this time just chatting to those in the flock looking in anyway disgruntled. Ramsay had always put unseen hours into the kind of morale boosting one-to-ones which can help a player through a trough. Des was too new for most to lean on for this, Roddy and I were selectors and Barb was actually already doing her utmost to hold things together. We needed Ramsay’s humour, humanity and sensitivity.
The Quarter Final day was in complete contrast to the opening match. It dawned hot and sunny-just what you don't need against the free-running Yanks. Worse, we had mild food poisoning reported to Amanda by three of the players. We knew this would be particularly debilitating in the heat. Even so, we decided to start our fastest team, including those feeling less than 100%. We believed it was better to start them and keep some fresh big hitters on the subs’ bench. If we could get ahead, we would then be able to control the game by bringing on players like Alison Christie with half an hour to go.
Right from the start it was clear that the Americans wanted to play as fast a game as possible. It made for an exciting first 20 minutes, but our forwards were already puffing heavily at the breakdowns. Crucially, USA scored first from great open-field running and a superb dummy and score from-guess who? Jen Crawford. We had not read that or so inevitably dummy, which we had predicted on video and in our practices. Playing catch-up in such weather against an American team high on confidence was always going to be tough. We scored a good try ourselves which Paula converted, but conceded a second again from a missed tackle in midfield. Pogo was standing wider than usual and the Americans were just running through the gap.
At half time, we said we would be bringing on subs regularly to try and up the tempo of our forward game and that our backs defense should switch to 'man on'. 15 minutes into the second half Janyne powered her way over the line by the corner flag, but the Italian referee said he was unsighted. It was a classic moment for a referee simply to ask everyone to get up slowly so that Janyne smothering the ball would be revealed. He called scrum without waiting. It proved our last chance, despite impressive displays from Gill Cameron and Ali McKenzie from the subs’ bench.
With ten minutes remaining, the Americans ran quick hands from a scrum and their great centre, 'Baby' from Boston’s Beantown strolled passed Pogo for the clinching try. My jaw dropped as we conceded a score from first phase. Not since the Welsh match in Glasgow four years before had we looked so tame in the tackle. It was the first and only time I had seen Pogo play poorly for club or country. There could be no greater evidence for me that personal issues had usurped the greater goals of team triumph. In hindsight too, it was a tragic way for one of Scotland’s finest to exit the international stage. For all but one game, Pogo had given us flair, power, pace, desire and resilience. She was also an ever-smiling face, who did nothing but good for the image of women in sport.
It would be wrong to blame Pogo for our loss against the USA, for in truth 5 or 6 key players had off days. Rimma, under pressure, was once again standing too far behind gain line and as a consequence, our backs weren’t penetrative. Our forwards couldn’t wrestle control of the game for sustained periods because of the heat, and we faded out of the main competition not with a bang, but a whimper.
As a coach, I hate losing games like that. We should have won it and I can only reflect that we didn’t get our preparation right for this one. Although, for the life of me I can’t think, what we should have done differently.
At the end of the game I glanced up on the stand roof at Des. This time he was sun burnt and had the same ‘get me home’ expression I had seen in the rain against Italy. I felt burnt in a different way that day.
As a management team we discussed options after the game and were unanimous in concluding that it was imperative to maintain focus and professionalism for the remainder of the tournament. It was particularly tough for Roddy and I to motivate ourselves after the main tournament was over for Scotland. We were weary of the in fighting, which had infected the squad since the New Zealand game. Suddenly, and probably for the first time in five years of being with Scotland, back home with the kids seemed an infinitely preferable proposition.
At the next practice session I lost my temper with a vengeance with the squad and said something like 'I've got two kids under 6 who have shown more maturity than some of the people in this squad over the last few days'. It was a sign to me at least that we should have confronted the culprits sooner when it came to their disdainful approach to fellow squad members. The undercurrent of disharmony had been a key factor in derailing us against the USA. I wanted to see how the squad responded on the pitch to judge whether my outburst had been appropriate, but it had certainly helped me diffuse my immense frustration at the team not making the final. We should have done.
The forwards trooped out of the changing room in heavy discussion about my outburst. Des, standing on the pitch, with a ball under each arm, greeted them. He said he had some special tricks, which would give our lineouts the edge against France. We had drawn the French for the semi final of the Shield competition. The forwards loved the new drills, because they gave the jumpers better support and then led to rampaging drives through the opposition’s forward defences.
A day in the life of the Head Coach at a two-week Championship is illustrative of the nature of the role and of the man. The day before we played our Shield semi final, Roddy met Amanda for breakfast to assess the injury list. There were three players who needed fitness tests and Amanda recommended rest for the remainder of the squad. Roddy cued up a trip to the training ground to run some drills with the three players on the doubtful list. I watched the session with interest because he made it feel like a skills test at speed. Rimma, who had a leg injury, gave the impression she could play on one leg if need be, and all three were cleared fit to play.
Driving back to the Hotel, Roddy stopped at the supermarket to stock up on fruit and litre jugs of water. He also bought some jaffa cakes, bottled water, a needle and thread and some strapping.
We had lunch as a management team and Roddy ran down the timings for match day. He would always start from kick off time and work backwards. Did we want to go back into the changing rooms 15 minutes or 20 minutes before kick-off? Once the timings were agreed we discussed content for the evening team meeting. We agreed it would be led almost exclusively Roddy. He would tell them tactics, which would see off the opponents well before no side.
After the meeting we had dinner as a squad and deliberately kept things informal. We had pasta and Lee complimented the Chef in his absence for his ability to disguise every dish we were given under a mush of cheese.
Roddy sat with Barb discussing the financial implications of not reaching the semi final. This was nothing to do with prize money, for there was none, but related to Sports Council funding for elite teams. We had to succeed to retain funding.
It was 11pm when Roddy joined Des in the video room. They wanted to pick out our best lineouts to show in the meeting the following morning. The editing took a couple of hours because as Des put it:
‘There’s so much good material to work with from the Italy and American games’.
Roddy left Des and went to the room in which we kept all the kit. I just happened to be passing and popped my head around the door. Roddy was sewing up the holes in the shirts ready for the game.
We planned a leisurely build up to the semi final. The French lost the toss and gloriously had to play in a reserve strip of yellow. This was great for our pre-match chat because we said they would take 15 minutes to get comfortable and that was all we needed. Paula spiraled a kick into their 22 and Donna stole their line-out ball. We drove the lineout all the way to their line where Donna crashed over with that broad smile which marks her best scores. The French had never been shoved around like that and they simply never recovered. Our forwards were led magnificently by the ever-feisty ‘Jocko’ Findlay. Paula and Rimma were thus able to open the game up and we scored freely for a resounding 27-7 win.
The shield final was against the beefy Australians, who had a great running fly half. In our final practice session Roddy had asked the players to make sure to wear their studs because of heavy dew. Paula ignored the suggestion and broke her hand when she slipped approaching a ruck. This was a big blow for our chances in the final because we needed her length of pass for a game plan designed to run the Australian pack around. It was also the final straw for us as coaches. You can lead a horse to water, but it might trip itself up before the feast.
We played really well against Australia, scored three tries but missed all five kicks to lose 25-15. The game was a great advert for the sport and was played on the big screen as a backdrop to the gala dinner. Denise’s try was a real highlight from the game, created by Donna (who had had a brilliant tournament) and finished with real guile by a classy runner. The game had, indeed, been a better spectacle than the main final in which New Zealand so controlled America that the result was beyond doubt by half time.
The Australian game had another notable incident. We substituted Jeni Sheerin at half time. She had not been defending the fly half channel as requested and had given away one of the tries. Jeni looked daggers at me when she was called off, still fresh and ready for the fray.
As soon as the game was over I called the forwards together for one last sweaty huddle:
'Your work rate and desire were fantastic today and you won enough ball to win this match a couple of times over. But c’est la vie; today it just wasn’t to be. I want to say a big thank you to each of you for five years of passion, dedication and brilliance; it's been an absolute pleasure to spend time with you, share the ups and downs and watch you achieve. The Grand Slam will be a testimony to your excellence forever and a day’.
Our eyes met and there was no need to say what we felt. We gripped each other tighter in the huddle and nodded gently.
The post-tournament dinner was a raucous affair, mainly because it was our first chance to spend some quantity time with our comrades from the other teams. Towards the end of the evening, lubricated by wine and exhaustion, Jeni and I had a blazing toe-to-toe row, which was sparked off when she asked why I had substituted her. The substitution had merely been the final straw for Jeni, who felt I had let her down just when she needed my support most.
I felt this confrontation had been coming since we introduced the super-sub strategy, but unfortunately my retort on that evening was clumsy and amounted to suggesting that Jeni had, in fact, let herself down. As we got louder and louder, Emma Mitchell gallantly tried to separate us, but we were so into the fray that we simply brushed her aside as though she was a fly on the wall. We must have made quite a spectacle, the coach and Scotland's most capped player screaming our heads off inches from each other's face. I’m glad to say Jeni and I have since resumed our good friendship and can look forward to rather more pleasant confrontations on the ski slopes near Geneva.
When I went to the bar after the argument for a cool-down beer, Stephen Jones looked at me with a smile:
'Good to see your passion for this game is as strong as ever!'
I replied by laughing at my own antics and concluding:
'Well, it's all over for me now, I should concentrate on my family for once!'
'You'll be back,’ he said smiling, 'You'll be back!'
I visited Deb’s brother and sister at their deli, ‘Maxi’s’, in December 1998. As it’s opposite Accies, I grabbed the chance to stroll around the pitch for one last time. The memories of the first Ireland game and of the ’94 World Cup engulfed me. In that moment, I decided we had to write the story of our first five years. When I mentioned the idea to Ramsay he suggested I should be the scribe. I had hoped he would volunteer because his natural wit and command of language would make for a cracking read.
The following month I returned to Club La Santa with Debbie and the boys for a winter break in the sun. I took the opportunity to update Daley on our progress (especially Jeni’s) and to present the Club with a photograph of the Scotland team of 1998. You'll find it near the photos of Linford and Colin Jackson in the bar near the main hall. The inscription reads: ‘With thanks to Club La Santa from the Scottish Women’s Rugby Team, the best in Europe 1998. Played 8 Won 8; points for 176 against 42.
Even though Roddy, Ramsay and I all stepped down from our duties in 1998, we continue to follow the squad’s achievements with the hope that Scotland can retain its position amongst the World's elite.
We were especially concerned when all our really fast three-quarters retired with us in 1998. There was Pogo, Micky, Mac, Sue, Denise and Linzi Burns. How heartening it is, therefore, to see that Scotland's female rugby players continue to punch above their weight. After our first decade of competition, only two nations have won more internationals than Scotland. Take New Zealand and England out of the equation, and we have won 80% of our matches.
Best of all, Scotland won the European Championship in Lille in 2001. Then, six of the squad dashed across Europe to play for their clubs in the English Cup Final at Twickenham on the following morning. The club game, which was televised live by Sky Sports and played in temperatures in the mid seventies, was a fabulous advert for the sport, with every Richmond three quarter scoring a try. The crowd cheered every moment.
Jaspar, Jocko, Jen Dixon, Jeni Sheerin, Vicky Galbraith and Fiona Gillanders had played for Scotland less than 24 hours before the Twickenham showcase. They had played three internationals in a week, including a brilliant semi final win over France. Then, five of the six Scots achieved an astonishing double by winning two prestigious finals in style over one weekend. I marvelled at their endurance, desire and spirit.
The next great challenge for Scotland’s women is to beat the best of the Southern Hemisphere. Logic would bet against this ever happening, particularly in the World Cup finals. But then if logic had prevailed we would never have won a Grand Slam and we would have to ignore the proven fact that for Scottish women who play rugby, there’s something inside so strong.