RACHEL Malcolm and Sarah Bonar are back in the Scotland team to face Italy on Friday after missing recent Tests through injury, while Liz Musgrove also returns from Hong Kong to take part in the Six Nations opener at Scotstoun. Those three changes to the starting line-up are joined by four alterations to the bench from the recent loss to Spain, among them Sarah Law, who also makes a welcome comeback after a long-term injury.
While the return of those key players is a significant boost for head coach Shade Munro as he prepares for his fourth Championship in charge, the bad news is that Louise McMillan is expected to miss the tournament after damaging an arm in the Madrid Test, while Jade Konkel, who is out with a leg injury, is now targeting the match against France in the third round of fixtures for her return.
Malcolm slots into the back row alongside Stirling County pair Rachel McLachlan and Siobhan Cattigan, taking the place of McMillan from the 29-24 defeat in the Spanish capital. Bonar takes over at lock from Nicola Howat, who drops down to the bench, ousting Lucy Winter from the matchday 23. Musgrove is on the right wing instead of Lauren Harris, Rhona Lloyd is back as a wing replacement instead of Abi Evans, and Law replaces Jenny Maxwell, with Mhairi Grieve holding on to the No 9 jersey.
While the Spain game was definitely one that got away, it was successful in the sense that Munro was able to field what now looks like being his first-choice midfield for some time to come: Helen Nelson at 10, captain Lisa Thomson at 12 and Hannah Smith at 13. The coach believes it also taught his team a useful lesson about game management – one they will have to apply on Friday if they are to get the better of Italy, who beat them 38-0 in November.
“It’s actually the learning that comes from being involved in games like that, and it’s good that the analysis we go through points out things that could be done to stop the momentum of the game,” Munro said. “When we go 17-10 up [as they did against Spain], the players are not particularly used to it – ‘My god, we’re ahead here, we’re away from home, this doesn’t happen very often, I hope we win the game’ – rather than ‘We’re 17-10 up, this is what we’re going to do now’.
“For example, ‘What did you think Spain were going to do? Did you think they were just going to carry on? Were they going to raise their game or weren’t they?’
“So these are the sort of questions that are asked. And they know the answers to them, but when you’re in the game itself what options do you have to change the game or maintain momentum or stop their momentum?
“That’s all part of the learning, and I would expect that we’re much better prepared if we find ourselves in those instances again. A couple of years ago we lost to Ireland at home in the last minute of the game, because we were hoping they weren’t going to score rather than saying ‘Right, we’re going to stop them scoring’.
“And the following week we played against Wales and we beat them. We were in the same situation again but the players were able to overcome it. ‘We’ve been here before. We know what to do’.
“It’s a bit similar to that against Spain. We were in a position to win that game. Disappointed after the game, which is good as well.”
The lesson from history
Scotland only won once in last year’s Championship, beating Ireland at Donnybrook, but Munro is convinced they are better prepared than they were then, having also played a friendly against Canada at the tail end of last year. That, too, was a narrow defeat, but against a team ranked fourth in the world Scotland at least showed they are an ever-growing threat as an attacking force.
“We didn’t have preparation for the Wales game last year – that Spanish game that we’d arranged was snowed off – and it kind of looked like that when the team started the Wales game. Very excited, the build-up was really good, but we just didn’t quite have the preparation going into it.
“This time round, having played against Spain, we’ve learned a lot from that game. And that was only a couple of weeks ago, so that’s really quite good momentum going into the Six Nations.
“We played against Italy in November and lost, but since then there’s been quite a shift in the way the team has been performing. We’re definitely on an upward curve going into the Six Nations.
“It will be interesting to see how far we’ve come based on the Canada and Spain performances. We scored four tries against both – if we can score four again, it’s about not letting them score more than that. It’s pretty clear that defence is a biggie, and we’ve been working on that pretty intensively in the last couple of camps.”
Scotland (v Italy at Scotstoun, Friday 7.35pm): Chloe Rollie (Lille); Liz Musgrove (Hong Kong), Hannah Smith (Hillhead/Jordanhill), Lisa Thomson (Darlington, captain), Annabel Sergeant (Heriot’s); Helen Nelson (Montpellier), Mhairi Grieve (Firwood Waterloo); Lisa Cockburn (Darlington), Lana Skeldon (Watsonians), Megan Kennedy (Stirling County), Emma Wassell (Heriot’s), Sarah Bonar (Loughborough), Rachel Malcolm (Loughborough), Rachel McLachlan (Stirling County), Siobhan Cattigan (Stirling County). Substitutes: Jodie Rettie (Saracens), Katie Dougan (Gloucester Hartpury), Mairi Forsyth (Stirling County), Sophie Anderson (Hillhead/Jordanhill), Nicola Howat (Edinburgh University), Sarah Law (Edinburgh University), Lisa Martin (Lille), Rhona Lloyd (Loughborough).