Scotland flew down to Almeria on the Mediterranean coast to take on Spain, one of their three rivals for the only place available for World Cup qualification. Friendly matches can rarely have had more significance.
Philip Doyle will be very happy with the way things went. Scotland started into the wind in top gear, rescuing a Spanish knock-on and counter-attacking through Rhona Lloyd. Hannah Smith started a major personal performance by going over. Helen Nelson converted (0-7).
They continued in this vein. Lloyd showed her pace again out wide, the ball was advanced by the centres and spread to the left for Megan Gaffney to squeeze in at the corner. (0-12)
Both sides were playing enterprising rugby, but the Scots had the edge at the scrum and dominated the scene. When the Leonas did get close, the defence held out, but a Spanish kick ahead was charged down only to rebound into the hands of Iera Echebarria. She remounted the attack and the ball worked out to Uri Barrutieta on the right wing (but wearing No 11) for a first try. Patricia Garcia’s kick hit the far post and stayed out. (5-12)
The game took a convulsive swing. The home pack mounted a huge drive that gained around 40 metres and a penalty. More drives led to more penalties, with the inevitable result – Maria Calvo drove over the line and Lana Skeldon was carded for not retreating 10. She was replaced by Molly Wright on debut. (12-12)
This is where Scottish sides of the past have floundered, but today Jenny Maxwell put up a teasing box-kick and Gaffney was only just held. Better still, on 39 minutes Smith broke again, this time from her own 22-metre line, and somehow evaded every tackle to score a remarkable try under the posts.
Inside three minutes the debutant Leah Bartlett finished off a drive to give the visitors breathing space (12-26).
Doriane Domenjo, the impressive French referee, then had one of those moments her colleagues all hate: Scotland offended, she played advantage and Spain scored a try under the posts. But by then she had blown the whistle: Maxwell had been injured. Her leg was placed in a cast and she left the field to warm applause. This gave Mairi McDonald her debut in unhappy circumstances.
It is a wonder that the hosts didn’t manage another score. At least twice Domenjo signalled ‘Held up’ as they pressed heavily on the Scottish line. Skeldon was hurt providing a temporary road-block and had to be replaced – once more – by Wright.
Just like Pauline Bourdon of France, the central figure of Garcia now moved to No 10, but her first action ended with a forward pass.
The last quarter belonged to Scotland. Smith made another lengthy break to the Spanish 22. She stayed down for an age where she landed, but eventually got up, her head bandaged. Scotland swirled around Spain’s defences for Lloyd to get a try in the right corner. (12-31)
Even better, Thomson planted a penalty kick five metres from home and Wright finished off a drive with another debut try. Thomson kicked a further penalty clean over the stand to ensure it went into touch, and Scotland were home by 24 points.
It’s fascinating to contrast this result with recent tests. Wales lost 5-29 to Spain in November, also away from home. One big difference: the Welsh squad contained a large number of debutants. Only one, Leah Bartlett, started for Scotland in Almeria. But the Thistles’ overall performance was way ahead. They had to withstand a determined riposte by the Spaniards in the first half. Hannah Smith’s try on half-time was crucial. Against that, Wales set down a marker, beating the Scots in Glasgow 17-3.
So Scotland know they aren’t the finished article. They have outstanding players in their midst, above all Jade Konkel and Rhona Lloyd, both now based in England, and Hannah Smith, who may just be the most accomplished player still operating from home. It’s the quality of the other players that will be crucial in the coming campaign. They are aware of the afvances Philip Doyle and his staff have brought them.
It’s exactly ten years since the passing of Bill McLaren, Scotland’s much loved voice of rugby. He would have been delighted to see this display by Scotland’s women.
Echebarria 15. Tonkin (Darlington Mowden Park)
Requena 14. Lloyd (Loughborough Lightning)
Hurtado 13. Smith (Watsonians)
Erbina 12. Thomson (Darlington Mowden Park)
Barrutieta 11. Gaffney (Watsonians)
Argudo 10. Nelson (Loughborough Lightning, captain)
Garcia 9. Maxwell (Loughborough Lightning)
Rico 1. Bartlett (Loughborough Lightning)
Rodriguez 2. Skeldon (Darlington Mowden Park)
Delgado 3. Forsyth (Corstorphine Cougars)
Puig 4. Wassell (Corstorphine Cougars)
Alameda 5. Bonar (Loughborough Lightning)
Salinas 6. Cattigan (Stirling County)
Medin 7. McLachlan (Darlington Mowden Park)
Calvo 8. Konkel (Harlequins)
Jaurena 16. Wright (Watsonians)
Macias 17. Muzambe (Edinburgh University / Watsonians)
Brust 18. Cockburn (Darlington Mowden Park)
Gil 19. Belisle (Cartha Queens Park)
Rodera 20. McMillan (Hillhead Jordanhill)
Diaz 21. McDonald (Hillhead Jordanhill)
Segarra 22. Denholm (Edinburgh University)
Bueso 23. Wallace (Harrogate RFC)