SHEILA BEGBIE, head of women’s rugby for the SRU, has welcomed the series of initiatives unveiled yesterday aimed at raising the profile of the Women’s Six Nations Championship – and she has promised that Scotland is ready to start proving that it is truly worthy of a place in European rugby’s flagship international competition.
All fifteen matches in this year’s tournament are to be recorded and packaged “to a high quality broadcast standard” then made available either live on television or streamed live on Six Nations YouTube and Facebook channels. A round-up highlights programme will be available on the BBC Network on Sunday evenings.
There will also be new dedicated social channels for the women’s branch of the tournament, and a logo has been introduced to give the women’s competition its own identity.
Furthermore, set minimum standards are to be applied at all venues, with each match being attended by a match manager to ensure that these standards are applied in all aspects.
It is undoubtedly a golden opportunity to market the women’s game, but all progress comes with some sort of risk, and at the moment Scotland are in a vulnerable position.
The national women’s team has not won a competitive match since 2010 meaning they have finished bottom of the the Six Nations table in each of the last six years. They also lost home and away to Spain in a World cup qualification play-off in November o, which inevitably revived debate over whether there should be scope for promotion into and relegation out of the Championship so that it truly represents the best performing teams in Europe at any given time.
In truth, it is very hard to argue against Spain being given a chance to play in the Six Nations at Scotland’s expense on sporting grounds, and Begbie wisely chose to circumnavigate that potential minefield.
“Spain are saying that they should be in the Six Nations, and if we were in their position we would probably be doing the same, but the reality is that they’re not and we hope that as we continue to develop our programmes in Scotland we will become a stronger team, and instead of languishing at the bottom of the table we will be able to go mid-table and beyond,” she said.
“What I would say is that we realise we are playing major catch-up, that Spain and other countries have a much more established programme than we have, but we will continue to develop what we’re doing as we move forward, and I would think that over the next few years time countries like Spain should be countries that we are absolutely competing with and winning against.”
It is not going to be easy, but Begbie is clearly determined to make it happen. She spoke yesterday about a number of schemes and ideas aimed at helping develop the game at all levels in Scotland.
“The programme we’ve had for our women’s team this year has been almost double what we’ve had before. We’re going down to play [English premiership club] Aylesford Bulls next week, which is the last game that [head coach] Shade [Munro] has with the team before the Six nations, and as we go forward we will look to increase the number of opportunities that we have. We’re certainly looking to increase our Autumn Test schedule.”
“We’ve got three games at home [in the Six Nations] this year and we really want to capitalise on that, so hopefully people will still come to the games even though they have the opportunity to watch it online. If you look at the likes of Wales and Italy, and what they are doing in their programmes, it is really comparable to what we’re doing here in Scotland – so that must be an opportunity for us to capitalise on home advantage against these two teams.”
“We have increased the amount of Sevens we are playing and reduced a bit of the Fifteens. It is about working with our national team players to develop fitness and conditioning, skill acquisition, decision-making and skill-execution under pressure.”
“This has been done working with Shade so that he can do some specific stuff with his front five, work on kicking and work on contact. So we’re really looking to be much more specific and focussed on what we are doing because we do acknowledge that there are parts of the game which need a lot of work and a lot of improving.”
“The target for the women’s Sevens programme is that we must qualify for the Rugby Europe Women’s Sevens Grand Prix Series this year.
“At some point down the line we have to start looking at [awarding more] professional contracts for our players because the reality is that everyone else is moving down that line at the moment. We don’t really have the infrastructure to support that at the moment. If we have the players in full-time, what do they do all week and who do they play against? So, we need to start raising all levels of the game, including the club game, before we can start identifying the next full-time professionals.”
“We need to work much more with club coaches in terms of supporting them in their own development, so that there is this understanding of what Shade is trying to do with the national team, but equally how can they work in the club with their players. We’ve actually delivered a couple of workshops on this already. The clubs are really key for us because we won’t do it on our own as Scottish Rugby – we need them to come with us.”
“We’re reviewing the league structure at the moment and looking at having a Premier League and a National League, and everything below that to be regionalised, so that we’ve not got players travelling from Annan up to Oban to go and play a game of rugby, which is less onerous in terms of time and expense.”
“One of the things within our strategic plan is that we want to explore a change of season in the women’s game. So I think that will start with a little bit of a sense check with some of the clubs to see what their thoughts are on going from, say, March through to the first week in November season, with an off-time during the summer period for re-seeding pitches and all that sort of stuff.”
“It might become a much more interesting proposition for girls and women if they are playing when the weather is a bit nicer, and it would also give us an opportunity to prepare our national team for the Six Nations with warm-up games in that window where the domestic season is closed. And it might also mean that there is more scope to play games on Friday nights or Saturday afternoons, rather than on Sundays.”
“We’d also look at working with the clubs in March and August (just before the season starts and just before the return from the break) on playing Sevens and Tens tournaments, so that we are focussing on fitness and conditioning of the players, and also on skill acquisition and development.”
“We’ve actually entered an under-18 Sevens team in a Rugby Europe competition, because it is really important to us that players start getting experience from a younger age of what it takes to compete on that international stage.”
“We’ve got our new Performance Development Programme, where we have targeted our most talented 16 to 20-year-old players, and we are working with them to develop their skills, their fitness and conditioning, and also give them an education around what it takes to be an elite athlete in terms of things like nutrition, lifestyle and so on.”
“Below that, we have our BT Sport Early Talent Identification programme for players around 14-years-old.”
“We’ve got players in our national team who started playing when they went to university so in terms of their physical literacy and rugby literacy, they are still developing. In the future our young women coming into the national team will have about eight years more experience of rugby than some of the players there at the moment – and I think that will have a massive impact.”
ATTRACTING NEW BLOOD
“We have seen player numbers increase (across the game) from 2,973 three years ago to 4,231. And the number of teams has increased from 112 to 192. It’s a great growth opportunity for us. The reality for Scottish rugby is that the greatest growth area in the future will be the women’s game – and it not only means we have more players, but we have more volunteers, more coaches and so on. So it really does benefit the wider rugby community.”
“For us, the national team is the shop window to the women’s game. From the women’s matches being on TV during the Olympic Games we had something like 150 women enquire about playing rugby – and each of those enquiries was followed up and people were diverted into their local club. So, if we can really raise the profile of the women’s game and use what is happening with the Six Nations and all these games being televised, in tandem with our own marketing, then hopefully we will be driving more women and girls into rugby.”
“We are looking to launch a major marketing campaign around about International Women’s Day in March called Try On Rugby, which is really aimed at challenging the stereotypes of female rugby players while also trying to raise the visibility of the women and girls game.”
“There is also the new Tartan Touch initiative which will be launched this summer, and with it being a non-contact element to the game we hope will increase the number of young kids and women who might chose to try out the game.”
“We’re now including the girls teams in the schools conferences, which have been really successful on the boys side – so there is a real push to encourage these teams when they go along to play game to take a girls team with them as well, so we’ll be watching how that develops over the next little while.”
“We’ve also got some really good role models now. We’ve got Jade Konkel out there working with schools, women and girls development officers out there, too, working hard to develop opportunities for women and girls to take the game up. I think having a really specific approach to trying to increase the number of opportunities for girls is important because that has not always been there in the past.”