For Scotland women, 2022 was the complete metaphorical rollercoaster.
It was a year that started on a huge high with Rugby World Cup 2021 qualification secured against Colombia. The year drew to a close with news of the centrally contracted players and the upcoming launch of the Thistles representative side. However, the victory over Colombia was to prove the only win for the XVs side in between, with committed performances ending up in a lot of near misses.
There were huge step forwards off the field with the launch of the women and girls’ strategy from Scottish Rugby, but the most devastating story in rugby this year was the heart-breaking interview with Siobhan Cattigan’s family and partner and the dread that playing international rugby had cost her not only her playing career but also her life.
In no particular order, here are some of the main talking points and themes from a momentous year for Scotlands’s women.
Back in the big time
The 2021 Rugby World Cup was an incredible showcase for women’s rugby and it was fantastic to see Scotland be part of that experience. The results were two incredibly narrow losses to Wales and Australia and a bit of a gubbing by the eventual champions New Zealand (refereed in the final by our own Hollie Davidson), but it will have given valuable experience shown to the team that they are absolutely at the level to reach the knockout stages next time.
There were a few factors that may have hampered the team’s ability to perform at their best, but which won’t be there next time. I mainly raise these because two of their games were so tight, and lost on such tiny margins, that they may have had a disproportionate impact, particularly on confidence and cohesion.
This was the first Scotland team at the women’s World Cup for a generation of players – it would have been remarkable if there hadn’t been a lot of additional nerves and pressure knowing it had been a twelve-year absence. There is no comparable tournament experience that these players could have had before, not even in sevens. But, should they qualify, the majority of the squad in the 2025 World Cup now have that tournament experience where none of this year’s squad did.
There were also complications in the build-up. The decision to immediately cancel their warm up with Spain on the announcement of the death of The Queen cost a good chance for a morale boosting win before flying out. Scotland therefore only had one XVs game between April and their opening match.
Although most players were able to go full-time in the 10 weeks up to the World Cup, the vast majority of the backs were playing 7s for a substantial part of this, with the Commonwealth Games dominating the summer.
I can’t help but wonder if this contributed to a little less fluency in attack than we might otherwise have seen. However, this is unlikely to be a problem again in the future, as the new professional contracts should allow for much greater focus on XVs.
But it wasn’t wholly negative on the pitch at the World Cup.
Scotland could not be faulted for effort, with several players in the list for top tacklers in the group stages. The line out and maul remained a real strength. Megan Gaffney finished off a couple of well-worked tries against Wales, although the team will regret not getting the likes of Rhona Lloyd and Chloe Rollie into more space after their try-scoring exploits earlier in the year.
The second half against Wales and the first half against Australia were dominant performances, and the second half against New Zealand certainly improved on a very disappointing first half – even when on the wrong end of a bit of a doing, their heads didn’t drop.
Those first two games could have easily had the opposite result with just the smallest change: against Wales if Helen Nelson was having one of her better kicking days or with a slightly different refereeing approach; against Australia, it possibly just needed the referee not to get in the way of a pass!
It was a first World Cup for all the players and it looked like they got a huge amount from it, learned a lot about themselves, bonded as a team and most importantly enjoyed the reward of years of hard work in getting there.
So close and yet so far
Those narrow losses against Wales and Australia were part of a broader picture for the national team. Taking out the early victory against international newcomers Colombia and the results read played 9, lost 9. But six of those losses were by less than a score, and five of those were games in which Scotland had a lead at some point in the second half (and in the other they were tied as the game ticked over the 80 minutes).
The most frustrating were the two games against Wales, and the Ireland and Australia tests. It meant a lot of on-field heartbreak for the team. But it does also feel like this team are one jolt of confidence from winning a few games too. They are matching the teams around them in the rankings.
This is far from the team of a few years ago that had been left behind by the other Six Nations teams.
In the first of these, a COVID-impacted Scotland did build a 19-7 lead against Wales, but a butchered three-on-one meant that lead wasn’t as big as it really should have been. It ended up not being enough against a team full of confidence and in front of a raucous home crowd. Maybe if Scotland had managed to hold out for that win, the confidence and relief of pressure could have helped through subsequent games – in particular what became a gut-wrenching late defeat against Ireland in the final Six Nations game.
There were still things to take pride in, such as keeping France scoreless for a half, which no other team managed through the year. They created more problems in attack for England to defend than any team in the Six Nations apart from France. The set piece and kicking from hand has improved significantly in the last couple of years. The team look fitter and tougher than ever, and that will only continue with being able to focus on rugby first with professional contracts.
If ever there is a time that Scotland needs to those narrow defeats into victories, it is the 2023 Six Nations, when placings will determine which tier of the new WXV competition Scotland go into.
Third would be an incredible achievement and would be rewarded with two years of competition likely against England, New Zealand, France, Canada and either the USA or Australia. Fourth or fifth would see us in a group with the other fourth or fifth Six Nations team, plus USA or Australia and likely Japan, South Africa and Fiji.
Sixth place is the one Scotland really need to avoid, as the third tier will likely contain Spain and four teams who are not troubling the higher levels of women’s rugby competition.
Turning a couple of 2022’s narrow away defeats into home wins should avoid this, so here’s hoping for a jumping, packed DAM Health Stadium cheering the team to better results and a great opportunity to progress their game.
A new professional era
December saw the announcement of the first big tranche of Scotland women’s players offered professional contracts. It feels like it has taken a while coming, but having them in place now will hopefully mean that Scotland won’t lose any further ground as women’s rugby continues to grow.
At the moment, the contracted players squad mostly replicates the World Cup squad (or players who missed out through injury). Scotland are building a good quality, stable core of players, mixing experience and youth. Several players – Jade Konkel-Roberts, Lana Skeldon, Sarah Law and Chloe Rollie – joined Emma Wassell in passing 50 caps this year. Youngsters like Evie Gallagher, Emma Orr and Meryl Smith should have the opportunity to play nearly their whole international careers as pros.
Strength in depth across many positions remains a concern, with some games seeing very few substitutes used. In this upcoming World Cup cycle, we will hopefully see some form of contracts for high-potential players outwith this core group to develop, provide as much competition for places as possible and ensure that there is real competitive squad depth.
Purely from this fan’s perspective, I would have loved to have seen two Scottish sides in the Premier XVs. It did seem like both the SRU and WRU were interested in this option at one point, but the RFU have rejected this even though there could have been many benefits for them as well.
The new Celtic Challenge was announced on 21 December and should provide a pathway for players who might be ready to step up to the international squad. However, with more and more of the best players from around the world joining the Premier XVs, it’s hard to see there being anywhere else that can provide the same level of competition in the medium term, and it is likely to be the best place for top Scottish players to further develop.
Finding the best structures below national level is going to be particularly challenging for countries with smaller populations than England or France. At the moment it looks like the Celtic competition might function at a level between the domestic Premiership and the Premier XVs, but how this all works in the long term remains unclear and will also depend on the commitment of all three unions.
A plea to maintain the positivity
The greater interest in the Rugby World Cup saw more journalists and fans engaging with women’s rugby. Overall, of course this is a good thing. As a fan, one of the things I really value and love about women’s rugby is the positivity and supportive atmosphere, from the women and men who have been covering it for years, to the players and the fans – and I hope more and more people embrace this.
The rivalries in men’s rugby can be great fun, and there are plenty of good people talking about it, but like everything in the modern world once you have both the traditional and social media involved, it can also be pretty unpleasant and dispiriting, with a few too many commentators and journalists who seem to dislike the sport they are covering and tear the players and coaches down, and some fans who just go too far.
There will be increasing numbers of people who come to rugby via the women’s game, and some may have been put off by some of the excesses in men’s rugby but don’t find the same in the women’s game.
Unfortunately, during the World Cup, a few pieces were appearing – notable examples being the Daily Mail tearing into Scotland women and a piece on Rugby Pass criticising South Africa for celebrating a retiring player in the aftermath of defeat to England. There was some really nasty criticism of Hollie Davidson after the RWC final on social media, just from a small section of fans, but nothing I’d really seen before around a women’s game.
I’ve never really understood the need for so much of the negativity we have in the discourse around sport; players and coaches are held to account by their performances, they don’t need journalists to do that. And surely if you’re just a fan and you’re annoyed with a player, you’ve got a WhatsApp group or equivalent where you can vent in private!
Across the World Cup we saw fans of all countries being inspired by players or picking their favourites from every team across the competition, to a much greater extent than in the men’s equivalent. I wasn’t the only Scotland fan I saw getting behind the Red Roses – something that I will never be doing for their male equivalents!
There’s lots of things in men’s rugby that I wish the women had access too, but it also deserves to keep the things that makes it different. Hopefully, as we continue to see the sport grow, we’ll see journalists who normally cover men’s rugby take their lead from those in the media who have a longer history of covering the women’s game and the fans that discover it will also celebrate that slightly different approach.
For all the excitement of World Cup qualification and new professional contracts, the event most likely to stick with the majority of us was the devastating interview with Siobhan Cattigan’s family and partner, following her tragic passing in 2021. So many questions were raised by their account of what has happened and it feels like virtually none of them have been addressed yet.
An Independent Inquiry is absolutely vital, but it seems legal proceedings will continue to be used as a reason not to commission one. Given some of the issues – such as how her family were treated, or whether the lower priority given to the women’s team at the time played a role – will likely be beyond the scope of any legal case, that seems a poor excuse for not making sure the matter is thoroughly looked into and lessons learned so this can never happen again.
Previously when asked, senior SRU folk used the excuse of protecting their employees, but surely it is most important to investigate whether the culture and structures within the organisation failed. Individual mistakes or misjudgements are highly unlikely to lead to serious failures if there is a good organisational culture. Of course, accountability for culture rests at the top, and with the SRU’s continuing ability to come across as a defensive and unaccountable institution, it’s not really surprising that there has been no commitment to a thorough independent review. It may not be surprising but it continues to be horrifying that this has not happened.
Siobhan’s friends and family deserve answers. Her teammates have sought to remember her and play in her memory as best they can, but that doesn’t seem to be the case from those at the top of the organisation.
Although we are the least important people in this, I know I’m not the only fan struggling with how to balance wanting to give the fullest and most enthusiastic support to the national team(s) with the discomfort and guilt of knowing that my money is going to an organisation that doesn’t seem to want to learn from a tragedy befalling one of the players that gave their all for that team.
There are a few things we can hope to see improve and change for the Scotland women’s team in 2023 but none is more important than this.