No fear as Scotland held together after virus shock in Italy, says Rachel Malcolm

Capatain says player’s welfare was the only concern after infection in Milan

Scotland captain Rachel Malcolm leads her team out to face England at Murrayfield. Picture: Ross MacDonald/SNS/SRU

Scotland Women’s captain Rachel Malcolm has expressed her pride at how the squad have rallied in the face of adversity after a year which was shaping up to be a huge one for the female game in this country but which has been thrown off course by the coronavirus crisis.

Back in February, Scotland found themselves thrust into the eye of the storm as they headed for Legnano,near Milan, little knowing that the pandemic was about to hit Europe.

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Sadly one of their own caught the virus, but has been recovering well, while other players and coaching staff were forced to isolate as the match against Italy on Sunday 23 February was postponed following the first two Covid-19 deaths in the north of the country.

A lot to process for new captain Malcolm, who was named skipper last year by incoming Irish coach Philip Doyle.

“When we arrived, we had a couple of good training sessions, we were so excited to get playing and were trying to optimise our recovery as much as possible and were spending most of our time in the hotel,” said the Loughborough Lightning flanker, who turns 29 on Saturday.

“We were not hugely distracted at all by what was going on elsewhere, we were just focused on the game, as any athlete would be in that situation.

“When things changed last minute, our management dealt with absolutely everything so we had no distraction from that point of view. They were phenomenal getting us organised and getting us home as quickly as they did. I would not say there was a huge amount of fear in the squad, it was just togetherness throughout.”

Malcolm said it was more a state of unexpectedness than anxiety when they discovered a team-mate had been struck by the illness.

“It was probably surprise more than anything because at that that point it was not as widespread as it is now,” said the Glaswegian. “We were surprised and looking out for the welfare of our player but she was well throughout, that was the main thing and all we could take from it.”

Malcolm added: “I think in terms of isolation, we were maybe aware of what symptoms to look out for. We were all aware of this outbreak in Italy and were heightened to that. We were a week or so ahead of the UK public.

“In terms of what was going to happen for the rest of the Six Nations, we were probably aware at the time that probably meant the end of our championship. Just because we knew the risk of transmission, any of the players or coaches we came in contact with. In terms of the pandemic we saw break out in the UK I don’t think anyone saw that coming. It has turned out to be a huge thing to affect our country.”

It left Scotland with three Six Nations fixtures unfulfilled but, this year, the championship was being viewed as a development stepping stone for what had been targeted as the centrepiece of the female squad’s year – the qualifying for next year’s World Cup in New Zealand.

The Scots were due to face Ireland, Italy and Spain in a September round-robin. The winners of that European contest would qualify automatically, with entry into a global repechage below that.

“The team were probably in the strongest place we have been in in terms of togetherness,” said Malcolm from lockdown in Nottinghamshire, where she works as a lecturer in sports science at Trent University. “On the pitch things were starting to gel so it was a really unfortunate time in terms of not getting a huge amount of rugby after that.

“We had been faced with challenge after challenge and it got to the time when it was a bit comical but what actually happened was that as a squad we became so much tighter, including the management as well. The way that we dealt with those challenges was unbelievable.”

The world of sport has embraced Mental Health Awareness Week in this uncertain time and Malcolm added: “It’s really tough because that [the team] is your social group too and to have that quite suddenly stopped is obviousy really difficult. I think we’re lucky that the age we live in we can still be in contact with Zoom or Facetime or whatever and we as a squad have been making a conscious effort of doing that.”

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