AFTER years of only paying lip service to the women’s game, the SRU has steadily put things right in recent seasons. Sheila Begbie became the governing body’s first head of women’s and girls’ rugby in 2014, the appointment of Shade Munro as national coach was made the following year, and since then the picture has brightened considerably.
When it comes to keeping up the progress, the buck now stops with Begbie’s successor, Gemma Fay. Like her predecessor, who moved last year to become director of domestic rugby, the 36-year-old Fay comes from a footballing background, having won more than 200 caps as a goalkeeper. And, having worked for Sport Scotland for eight years and liaised with a range of governing bodies, she has far wider experience than many coaches and administrators.
The other side of that coin is that, before beginning her job at the start of the year, Fay had only a nodding acquaintance with rugby. She has therefore, by her own admission, had to get up to speed quickly. But, in her first media interview since being appointed, she spoke with impressive authority on the challenges she has faced as an individual, and on the challenges that rugby faces in its attempts to attract far more girls and women than the current, relatively small number who play it regularly.
“It has been a steep learning curve,” she said. “In the past I’ve done a lot of talks to young kids, students, CEOs etc, and I often talk about fear, because fear is your worst enemy. But it’s also the easiest thing to break down, because it’s something you create yourself.
“And when you go out of your comfort zone you can go to panic zone or you can go to stretch zone. This job has certainly taken me to the edge of my stretch zone, because I’m coming into an entirely new sport.
“I’ve been in the post now just shy of three months, and I’ve had an opportunity to see what’s happening on the performance side, a bit of what’s happening in the domestic game, and just getting a feel for where it is we want to take the women’s game in Scotland. So for me, performance-wise, we want to raise the level of our performances, we want to raise ourselves in the world rankings, and we want to qualify for [the World Cup in] 2021.
“In terms of the domestic game, we want to get more girls and more women playing the game, however they want to play it, so we need to look at what kind of products we currently offer in terms of women’s rugby, and work closely with the clubs to develop the standards that we have.”
A tough job
While those standards are improving, the harsh reality is that Scotland still has a long way to go to catch up to England and France in particular. If the small pool from which Munro selects the Scotland squad is to expand, every club in the country needs to start recruiting more members.
“I guess on the performance side the biggest challenge is depth,” Fay continued. “We have some really great athletes, however if we lose one or two or three or four we don’t necessarily have that established depth yet because of the embryonic stage of the development of our pathway. So that’s probably a challenge, but we are looking at our pathways and how we strengthen our squads.
“But it takes time to develop athletes. We talk about 10,000 hours or 10 years, so can we speed it up by recruiting players from different backgrounds?
“We’ve got some established clubs in the women’s section, and we need to grow those clubs, but we need to support them to grow. We need to look at the infrastructure that we have: how can we develop that and get more coaches in the women’s game? It doesn’t necessarily need to be female coaches, although we would like more. But can we get more coaches in the game? – more qualified coaches coaching at all levels so we develop those young habits and behaviours from small girls all the way up the pathway.
“I think it’s really important for us to establish a variety of role models. If you ask a young girl who’s the most important person in her life – ie a role model – it’s probably a parent. It might be a grandparent, it might be a teacher.
“And it’s the behaviours that a role model displays which are the most important. Now you can akin that to a national-team player, and we have some really good role models in our national team.
“But not every girl or woman that wants to play rugby wants to be an international athlete: they want to say ‘I can come because my mum plays rugby, and she’s not an international athlete but the things that she displays are really important for me’. So I think role models are important, but the types of role models that we have are most important, and we have to identify the ones that can tap into different audiences out there.”
While grassroots access to coaching will always remain vital, the national team remains the flagship for women’s rugby, and the more successful that team becomes, the more attractive the sport will appear for girls.
Success was hard to come by until recently, but after years of losing every game in the Six Nations, Scotland won two home matches in 2017 and won one away game in this campaign. That may be only modest progress, and there have been setbacks along the way too, but there is little doubt that things are heading in the right direction.
Targets to achieve
“We have a focus: it’s qualification for the 2021 World Cup,” Fay added. “And I know that everybody has bought into that. There will be ups and downs: last year we won two games in the Six Nations, this year we won one, but we won away from home, which was a big thing for us. That’s the nature of performance sport: it goes up and down.
“In terms of points scored we scored more than last year. We lost the Wales game by a point, and like some games last year it could have gone either way.
“There were some good things out there. The tough thing for an international team and a team that is improving is to try and get that consistency. That can be the difference between a good player and a great player.
“Psychologically Ireland was big. You haven’t beaten them in the Six Nations, you haven’t won away in 12 years: no matter how much you try and forget that, it’s in the back of your mind. So that’s out the way now. That will do wonders in terms of confidence.”