If you woke up this morning and happened to find yourself in Glasgow then get down to Scotstoun Stadium where Scotland’s women have a Six Nations warm-up match against old rivals Spain that, you could argue, is more important than the competition itself.
Spain are ranked higher than Scotland in World Rugby’s pecking order, tenth versus 12th, they beat Scotland (home and away) to qualify for last year’s World Cup and they eye with some envy Scotland’s place in the current Six Nations. If Scotland’s women can be dropped for a better team, the argument will go, then it follows that nothing is sacred in the men’s competition either and that is not a path that Murrayfield wants to explore.
A handy win for the Scots will put Spain back in their box and Scotland’s women proved that there is life after death by winning two championship matches last season, against Italy and Wales, having gone 35 Championship matches without a “W” to their name.
Success has many fathers. The appointment of Shade Munro as head coach sent the message that Murrayfield was taking the women’s game seriously. He now has four full-time pro players to work with and he is making good use of the small pool of talent available.
Another reason is that Helen Nelson has emerged as the team’s stand-out stand-off who likes to play with the ball in hand, fully in tune with the women’s high-tempo style that Munro has copied from the men or, the former Scotland lock claims with a smile, that Gregor Townsend has copied from him.
“We played them [Spain] last year in the World Cup qualifiers and it was close but we lost both and missed out on the World Cup,” says Nelson who still picked up one man of the match award. “So it’s a massive one for us, we want to show what we can do, show that we’ve improved and can beat them.”
“They have a strong pack and their backs are really skilful because they focus on sevens so they are dangerous out wide and they have fast backs. They are a good all round team, we can’t concentrate on one area.
“I see my job as getting our ball out to our exciting backs, our back three, our centres, everyone has something to offer [in attack] so just get the ball to them and see what they can do.”
Nelson comes from good Highland rugby stock, her brother Robbie does great stuff in the Currie Chieftans midfield and you have to warm to someone who once turned out for Glencoe Golden Eagles, Nelson’s first club before shifting to Lochaber.
She initially set off on an alternative sporting life, as a competitive skier, good enough for the GB squad as a junior, but she admits that she was never destined to be one of the world’s greats and instead she opted for Edinburgh University where she returned to the sport that she had abandoned at 13, when girls are no longer allowed to play with boys.
As with most of Scotland’s women’s team, Nelson relies upon the good will of her employers, Edinburgh software company Consalis, to get the time off work to fulfil her rugby commitments. Even then, she says, that while she does work in camp in lieu of turning up to the office, for many of her colleagues their entire holiday allowance is taken up with rugby commitments.
After today’s warm-up, the real thing starts for the women in Wales, one of the teams they beat last time out. Presumably Wales will be looking for revenge for last season’s one point loss to a penalty kick in the final few minutes?
“I hope so,” replies Nelson when I put this to her. “It is going to be a massive grudge match. I know a couple of them [Welsh players] and we had a competitive training session with them and played them again recently, we all get on, it will be a good game.”
And no one will take the Scotland threat lightly after last season’s twin wins?
“I don’t think so. We haven’t really discussed that but we tend to focus on ourselves. I think we all know individually that people will maybe view us differently but we just concentrate on ourselves.”