Women’s football legend Gemma Fay admits it has been “a steep learning curve” moving into the world of the oval ball but is brimming with enthusiasm to take female rugby forward in this country.
The former captain and goalkeeper, who won a record 203 caps for Scotland, was appointed SRU head of women and girls’ rugby at the end of last year and took up the post in January after previously working for sportscotland.
She has a wide-ranging brief but Fay boils it down to two key aims – improving the elite Scotland national women’s team, while at the same time getting more girls involved to build a stronger base and platform for future development and the general health of the sport.
Fay’s record-breaking football career ended on the high of an appearance at last year’s women’s European Championships, which ended a long and often heartbreaking quest for a place at a major finals. Now she is focused on ensuring that Scotland qualify for the 2021 Women’s Rugby World Cup after the anguish of missing out on last year’s event in Ireland following a play-off loss to Spain.
“We want to raise the level of our performances, we want to raise ourselves in the world rankings, and we want to qualify for [the World Cup in] 2021,” said the 36-year-old, who takes over from Sheila Begbie, who Fay knows well from working with her during Begbie’s stint as the SFA’s head of women’s football. Begbie is now the head of domestic rugby at the SRU.
Fay continued: “In terms of the domestic game, we want to get more girls and more women playing the game, however they want to play it.
“So we need to look at what kind of products we currently offer in terms of women’s rugby, and work closely with the clubs to develop the standards that we have,” she added.
Following years of heavy defeats, Scotland’s women’s rugby team have taken great strides recently after the appointment of former Scotland lock and Glasgow forwards chief Shade Munro as full-time head coach.
While the breakthrough two wins last year at home to Wales and Italy in the Six Nations were followed up this year by a solitary victory, the fact it came away from home and was a first-ever win in the competition over Ireland, suggests, for all the disappointment of a closing loss in Italy, consolidation rather than a backwards step.
“It is hard to quantify in terms of what KPIs [key performance indicators] you look at across that,” said Fay.
“In terms of points scored we scored more than last year, if we look at the Wales game, we lost by a point and like some games last year it could have gone either way.
“Against France in the first half it was really good compared to last year while in spells against England the team did really well.
“I think it is hard to say it is a decline, yep the stats say we won one fewer game, but we pushed the girls more this year especially in defence. There were some good things out there.”
Fay, whose father played rugby for Perthshire RFC, certainly believes Scotland are now producing the kind of role models that can inspire young girls to see international rugby as something to aspire to.
She points to Scotland’s first professional player Jade Konkel, speedster Chloe Rollie, who scored a wonderful length-of-the-pitch try in that Ireland win, and Lisa Thomson, all of whom have been given the chance to play professionally in France through a link-up with Lille.
Fay does not view the fact top female players have to move outside Scotland – “out of their comfort zone” – to take their development to the next level as a negative.
“Could I see [a more professional domestic league in Scotland] in the next five years? No, I can’t, if I’m brutally honest,” she said. “I’ll make comparisons with football, where I’m from. You’ve almost got an entirely professional national Scotland team, but they don’t play in Scotland because the league hasn’t established to deliver that.
“We have two professional men’s [rugby] teams in Scotland, so to create a league that can replicate that is going to be quite hard. But what I would say is that the majority of the girls in the national team have come from the clubs, so the clubs have produced national-team players, and there are good coaches in there.
“We want to support them to be able to do that consistently.”
Scotland still faces a long, challenging road to compete at the top of the elite level but, one thing is sure, female rugby has moved a long way from the niche, novelty pastime it was widely considered to be as little as a decade ago.
“I think if you look at sport in general in this country we have a big part to play in the health and wellbeing debate that is going on,” said Fay.
“We have Tartan Touch which is the non-contact version but you still get your hands on the ball and maybe that is what someone aspires to be, well we can provide that.
“Rugby is a physical sport, there is no getting away from that and there are risks associated with that, but we have some of the best medical support headed up by [SRU head of medicine] Dr James [Robson].
“And you know there are different types of females out there, some of them like the physicality and that is what draws them to the sport, so we should not shy away, but celebrate that.
“In the national team there are all different types of girls and all girls can aspire to be like them.”