Donna Kennedy ready to embrace final tilt at World Cup glory

THE world's top 12 nations in women's rugby came together at a star-studded, televised launch of the sixth Women's World Cup in London last night and the most experienced player at the event allowed herself a wry smile.

Donna Kennedy will earn her 111th cap on Friday when Scotland face Canada at noon in the opening match of the tournament. She will also be the only World Cup performer who can vividly recall the first World Cup 19 years ago, even though Scotland were not involved and she did not make her Test bow until 1993, against Ireland, in what was Scotland's first women's international. The Scots hosted the 1994 World Cup and that event, won by England, provided the platform for women's rugby to take root north of the border.

Kennedy should not be in Surrey at all, in truth, as the 38-year-old back row "retired" from the game after the last tournament, in 2006, and then, having been persuaded to rethink for the next year's Six Nations, announced her retirement again a year later.

"This time it is definite," she laughed yesterday, having emerged from a post-training ice bath admitting that was one aspect of rugby she will not miss. "Definitely, definitely, the last tournament for me.

"I will finish this season and am keen to get my teeth into coaching in Scotland, but it just makes this World Cup all the more special.

"I've been involved in a lot of big games with Scotland over the past 19 years that I've been playing, probably none greater than the 1998 Five Nations Grand Slam, but the World Cup has just grown incredibly. You look around at the television interest this year, the quality of the teams, the quality of the rugby and demands placed on the girls now and it is a whole different world to when I started out."

Kennedy is thankful to Biggar RFC for opening the doors to women's rugby just as it was beginning to grow wings around Europe and in North America.

A keen sportswoman, she had not thought of rugby before being encouraged to take it up at Hartreemill and believes had she not found it at that point work would have ensured she did not find it at all.

"I have had a lot of understanding bosses I have to say, who have allowed me time off to play for Scotland, but those early days at Biggar got me hooked.

"It was quite different then and it cost a lot, which a lot of people don't remember now.We had to pay for our Scotland jerseys, all our kit, flights and accommodation, and at internationals and you were always working full-time, too, so you had to be pretty committed.

"Even in that World Cup in Scotland in 1994, we stayed at a hotel in the Grassmarket, above Biddy Mulligan's I think it was, and we all had to fork out for that.

"Some of the top players around the world have been full-time pros for a while, but Scotland as a team have never had the funding or sponsorship to cope with that so it has just come down to the determination of girls to play rugby for Scotland."

She acknowledged that it took some time for Scottish rugby to follow the English model and embrace a structure for women's rugby, but has nothing but praise for the SRU now for the set-up being developed from youth through club, academy and international levels. The 2010 Women's World Cup has already achieved a greater level of respect than any before, with Sky TV coming on board and a host of countries across the world paying to take live games.

Kennedy believes the standard of rugby will also surprise some who have not followed the growth and development of the game.

"It has come on leaps and bounds, on and off the pitch," she continued. "The pace of the game, physicality and skill levels have trebled, at least, since that first World Cup.

"It is a great spectator sport, and I'll be honest and say it probably wasn't in 1994 or even 1998, but the pace, power and skill is well up there. It is different to men's rugby. It's still a little slower than the men's and not as physical, but we're not there to compete with men.

"We've developed a women's game that provides a great opportunity for girls of all ages to enjoy the great qualities of rugby, and that people will pay to watch, and the young players that are coming through now and getting to this stage really have to be very good athletes, skilful and very committed sportswomen.

"The structure is fantastic now and the proof is in the number of disappointed girls sitting at home this week who could have been in this World Cup squad."

Kennedy returned to the international fold simply because someone asked her why she was continuing to play in the English Premiership with Worcester and not making herself available for her country anymore, and it bit at her. She has long been known as a committed trainer, as well as a fearless competitor, whether in the back row or the back division at one time; strong, skilful and with good hands.

Her day job now is as a regional business manager for Vets Now, based in Dunfermline, who have given her time off for her last World Cup adventure, and coach Gary Parker is delighted to have her experience in a squad boasting many youngsters.