Source: ©INPHO/Craig Watson

Why defeat shows challenges and opportunities for Scotland

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As Louise McMillan tumbled beneath the rumble in a desperate attempt to prevent England’s maul crossing for a third time, it would have been easy to view Scotland’s performance through a prism of negativity. The awarding of a penalty try took the Red Roses beyond 50 points; McMillan’s resultant yellow card the third time a visiting player had been asked to leave the field by the referee.

Yet the 42-point final winning margin does not fully reflect a game that was a great deal harder fought than first appears, particularly in the second half. Indeed, having, in a five minute period before half-time, conceded twice and seen Lisa Thomson sent to the sin bin, the manner in which Scotland came back out after half-time and controlled the third quarter of the game will have particularly heartened coach Bryan Easson.

“Emotionally, there were rollercoasters in there,” said Easson at full-time. “We were all really disappointed with the first half display, we were all disappointed in the way we came out. We felt at half time that we had just sat back and waited to see what England were going to bring to us.

“At half-time, we were quite strong with our words. We put England under a little bit more pressure, which then allowed us to have a little bit more ball. We’ll take the positives from that game.

“We’re going to look at that first half like getting back on the horse again, and now we are on it. I said to the players after the game: ‘you can hold your heads high after the second half performance.’”

It was a performance all the more credible when you consider that Scotland’s captain had been hobbling since falling awkwardly from the opening kick-off before eventually failing to re-emerge after the interval. Rachel Malcolm’s knee injury will be assessed over the next couple of days, but it says plenty about the character both of her as an individual and of her team that she battled on for 40 minutes on, essentially, one leg. Scotland did not capitulate even as England played the final minutes of the game with an extra player after Molly Wright’s sending off.

Having been kept scoreless in each of the last two editions of this tournament by the Red Roses, Hannah Smith’s try, skipping to the outside of Lagi Tuima after some quick thinking from Mairi McDonald was just reward for Scotland’s slow turning of the screw having forced England into errors and ill-discipline. Smith’s turnover in the corner, ripping the ball free from English hands as they neared the white line, was another standout moment, while McMillan stood up throughout. Scotland’s set-piece was strong and stout; in Helen Nelson and Lisa Thomson, Easson has a creative axis who will cause problems.

We must also consider the bigger picture here. This is a Scottish side that had not played together since a famous draw with France in the autumn, a 23-player squad some two-thirds of which had not played a single minute of competitive rugby in the best part of six months.

It is the great frustration of the Women’s Six Nations at the moment that we must talk in hypotheticals. England and, to a lesser extent, France have shown the value in investing in women’s rugby and professionalising national set-ups, but that investment is beginning to really widen gaps in what is an unequal competition.

How might Scotland have challenged England if all 23 of their players had come thick from Premier 15s battle, for example? How much better could the brilliant Malcolm be were she able to commit full-time rather than scrambling to arrange shifting patterns of leave from her job as a lecturer at Nottingham Trent University? Remember that Scotland are without Jade Konkel, who is taking a break from the game to train as a fire fighter and whose carrying and defensive punch add so much to this side.

“We were the best we have ever been prepared to play against England, but we haven’t played together since October,” explained vice-captain Nelson. “There are always going to be things that come out in the game that naturally don’t occur in training, so that is maybe the reason that our first 40 was a little bit of a struggle.

“We adapted well and it does put us in a good place moving forwards against the other teams we are going to play. We can now go back and work on the things that we picked up from the first half and then add those in to the positives from the second and be in a really good place for Italy.”

But while the inconsistencies remain in the professionalism of the six sides, this competition will remain diminished in the eyes of many. There were striking similarities between the way Scotland played against England and Wales against France, and to have two such apparently one-sided results on an opening weekend does little to encourage sceptics and those dismissive of women’s rugby to watch. It could also be pointed to as one reason why this competition is yet to have a title sponsor, for there is plenty of commercial appeal in women’s sport, even post-pandemic.

One could also accuse the BBC’s coverage of being a touch perfunctory, without pre-match build-up or analysis of any kind beyond live commentary. It certainly would have been tough to inadvertently stumble upon it, given its positioning on the iPlayer and red button.

The Women’s Six Nations has outstanding investment potential and a better and better on-field product, as Scotland showed. Their game with Italy the weekend after next shapes as a most intriguing clash, frustrated though Easson and Nelson were not to be going back into battle next weekend. The prognosis for Malcolm is unknown, but if she is fit then Scotland will be particularly confident of beating a side that, like them, have been short of rugby.

Yet while England and France and the rest continue to diverge the competition as a spectacle is lessened. The Six Nations and the governing boards in question must ensure this divergence is arrested, for it is the only way that women’s rugby is going to grow in the way it deserves to.

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