THEN there were three. After a year of being Scottish Rugby’s only female professional, Jade Konkel has now been joined – in the pro ranks and at her new, French club – by Chloe Rollie and Lisa Thomson.
Like their team-mate, 22-year-old Rollie and Thomson, who turns 20 next month, will play rugby in the French Top 8 this season for Lille, who were champions in 2016 and runners-up last time out. The deal is initially for one year, and sees both women join Konkel as Stage Three players in the BT Sport Scottish Rugby Academy. And crucially, Lille – or Lille Metropole Rugby Club Villeneuvois (LMRVC) to give them their full title – have agreed that they will be released for all their Scotland duties.
Since Konkel turned pro in June 2016, it has been Scottish Rugby’s ambition to add to the number of female professionals, and when it was agreed that two more players should move to France, Rollie and Thomson were the obvious choices.
A full-back who can also play on the wing, Rollie has been the national team’s outstanding strike runner in recent seasons, developing a reputation as the fastest, most elusive player in the game. Thomson, who made her Scotland debut a year after Rollie in 2016, has become an automatic pick for the national side thanks to her strong running at centre.
The pair know that moving to a new country will be a challenge, but it is one they are determined to embrace. “Obviously we get challenged here just now, but I don’t think it will be anything like what it is over there,” Rollie said yesterday at a Murrayfield press conference to announce the move. “Even training-wise, it will be challenging. The whole prospect is a challenge, but a good one.
“It’s a dream come to try to become a professional rugby player. When I was younger I started off as a mascot for the Scotland women’s team in the Six Nations, and I always looked up to them and thought I could be there. I never once thought professionally – I just thought I could be on the pitch playing.
“Then once I got my first cap and it was all real, the whole professional thing never popped into my mind. But definitely since Jade got it, that was when everyone perked up a bit and thought ‘we could do it as well’.”
While she is an outstanding player already, Thomson is convinced that she can improve “massively” in a professional environment – and that the national team will see the benefit from her, Rollie and Konkel all playing at a higher level of the club game. Scotland made significant strides last season, winning all three of their home games in the Six Nations just months after losing to Spain in a two-leg play-off for a place, and she believes that, after years in the doldrums, the team is catching up on its rivals.
“After those Spain games we were so frustrated, and coming into the Six Nations we feel we were just a couple of months behind,” she said. “Had we hit the World Cup qualifiers as we did the Six Nations, it could have been a different story. It’s just been the best season – winning the [Rugby Europe] sevens, having a good season with uni and with Scotland, and now becoming a professional player. It’s just been surreal.
“I remember being at school, and everybody asked what do you want to do at uni or do with the rest of your life,” she said. “I could never decide on a uni course, because all I wanted to do was play rugby. So I ended up just doing sports science at uni, as most sporty people do. From a young age, really, all I ever wanted to do is play rugby. It’s finally come true.”
As Scottish Rugby’s head of academy and performance programmes, Stephen Gemmill is responsible for overseeing the agreement with Lille. “Lisa and Chloe have demonstrated ability and application, they’ve demonstrated a work ethic, and they’ve demonstrated the behaviours that we want in our professional athletes,” he said.
“It’s important that they learn the language, and Lille will help with that. It’s important that they immerse themselves in the culture – what we don’t want to get is a Scottish enclave operating in a club in France. We want our players to have the opportunity to grow on and off the field, and the partnership with Lille is about them looking after the welfare of the players.”
Laurent Vitoux, the president of women’s rugby at Lille, said he was sure the partnership with Murrayfield would be of mutual benefit. “The quality of the discussions we’ve had over several months with the Scottish officials has meant we’re able to welcome three of their best internationals to the club,” he said. “It’s a win-win partnership that both parties are looking forward to being part of.”