Six Nations 2015: Scotland women gunning for Wales and Italy

RHC Cougars number eight Karen Dunbar is targeting 2017 Women's Rugby World Cup qualification

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Karen Dunbar believes Scotland are ready to take down Wales and Italy Jason O'Callaghan

Karen Dunbar admits Scotland are targeting Wales and Italy next month as they look to boost their Women’s Rugby World Cup hopes.

Changes to the qualification criteria for the 2017, which sees champions England as well as Ireland and France already qualified, means that Scotland are in a three-way shoot-out with their two Six Nations rivals with only the next two best-placed countries guaranteed a place at the tournament.

We’re all athletes and we want to be winning as much as we can and be as competitive as possible, but there’ll be an extra emphasis on those couple of games.

Karen Dunbar

While there is a quietly-growing confidence among the Scotland squad, many on the outside still consider them to be rank outsiders, no-hopers and other similar labels so often attributed to the men’s team.

There could be just reason for those labels to be applied. Scotland haven’t won a game since 2010, with just one draw from their last 24 matches, which included enduring 11-try defeats to France, England and Ireland in last year’s tournament.

Their only points came in a heavy defeat 43-5 defeat in Italy, while their best result was a 25-0 defeat against Wales.

The men’s team may have made waves since the arrival of Vern Cotter last summer, but women’s rugby continues to go about its business very much under the radar.

The prospect of overhauling Wales and Italy over the course of 10 matches between next month and March 2016 seems slim, but the 24-year-old RHC Cougars back-rower believes they are on the up after a much-improved 27-3 defeat to Italy in a warm-up match in L’Aquila last November.

“We talked about it at the last camp,” Dunbar said. “The ultimate aim is the 2017 World Cup – that’s why we’re all here.

“We do think we’re in a better position to compete with Wales and Italy over the next two seasons, especially this season as we’ve got both Wales and Italy at home, so we’ll be targeting them.

“At the end of the day, we’re all athletes and we want to be winning as much as we can and be as competitive as possible, but there’ll be an extra emphasis on those couple of games.”

While the men have the honour of hosting their three matches against Wales, Italy and Ireland on the new international pitch at BT Murrayfield, the women’s squad have finally found a home at Broadwood Stadium in Cumbernauld, which has put an end – temporarily at least – to their nomadic existence, which has taken them to all corners of Scotland in front of sparse crowds.

The stadium also played host to the end of season cup matches for amateur rugby in Scotland last May and the artificial pitch should guarantee that they have a perfect playing surface when they host Wales in their opening home match on Saturday 14 February.

For Dunbar, who hails from North Lanarkshire, there is a hope that the location of the stadium in the Central Belt will encourage Scottish rugby supporters from Glasgow, Edinburgh and beyond to get behind women’s rugby with three important matches to play.

“I’ve never actually played on it,” she added. “I know a few of the girls have because there was a cup game there a few years ago and they really enjoyed the pitch.

“It’s a nice, central location so we should get good crowds from both sides [of the Central Belt].

“On a personal note, I’m from Airdrie, which is 20 minutes away so I’ll have all my family there. If I get selected, that’d be excellent.

“I’ve only heard good things [about the stadium] and in our next camp we’ll be going to see the pitch and see that everything’s right so we can make it a home fortress.”

Like many of her club and international team-mates, Dunbar has to juggle university and work with her international rugby career.

Most girls are training pretty much every day now. The difference with being professional is then we wouldn’t have to rush to do our jobs or getting up at six in the morning, which would help.

Karen Dunbar

As women’s rugby across Europe continues to develop, countries are putting more resources into the infrastructure, particularly at grassroots level, while the benefits are also filtering into the higher levels of the game with a bigger focus on a more structured approach to strength and conditioning, nutrition and training sessions that fit around jobs and degrees.

Having graduated from the University of Glasgow, Dunbar is now a PhD candidate in Edinburgh working in cancer research with hopes that women’s rugby in Scotland may one day turn professional, but personally wishing it happens around the same time as she aims to complete her latest degree.

“I’d definitely consider it,” she added.

“It’s one of those things that would be once in a lifetime and a rugby career is going to be short, so if the opportunity arose I think a lot of the girls would definitely be looking at it, but I’ve got another couple of years of studying left, so in two years would be perfect.

“Most girls are training pretty much every day now. The difference with being professional is then we wouldn’t have to rush to do our jobs or getting up at six in the morning, which would help.

“The mindset I’ve found recently has been changing, because a lot of the Sevens players are starting to go professional elsewhere.

“We’ve got to think even if we’re not getting paid for it, we’ve got to have that professional mindset.

“Coming into camp, we’re doing a job. We’re doing everything as well as we can.”

With few clubs and opportunities to progress domestically in Scotland, many of the current crop of internationals now play their club rugby in England, in a far stronger league set-up under the auspices of the Rugby Football Union.

Eight of the players named by head coach Jules Maxton are in that position, including captain Tracy Balmer at Worcester, while Fiona Sim was part of the Saracens team that won the RFU Women’s Premiership earlier this month.

Dunbar believes the experience that those players brings to the home-based players is invaluable and raises the standards at Scotland camps, which then filters down to the club game.

“Their experience is great, especially when it comes to games against England,” she said.

“A lot of the Scottish girls have only seen them on TV, then we’ve got people who play with them.

“It’s great just to level it down and say ‘they’re not so good at this – they’re human; they’re just players as well.’

“They’re playing at a higher level down in England so it’s great when they come in and it raises our training because we’ve got to be at that level and get to the highest level.”

Ambition to play reach the highest level doesn’t just happen on the field and that’s something the Scottish Rugby Union has already started to address.

Our fitness was so much improved [in November] and if anything we were the fitter side. It was just some of our play wasn’t quite clinical enough, but I’d say we’re almost on a par with the other nations now.

Karen Dunbar

The decision to bring in Sheila Begbie, who spent 16 years as head of women’s football at the Scottish Football Association, to head women’s rugby will not necessarily see overnight results, but there is no question that women’s football in Scotland has grown stronger over the last five years and has a very successful development system from the grassroots level to the Scottish Women’s Premier League, with many women progressing from amateur level at Scotland’s highest level to full-time professional contracts with top clubs across Europe and in North America.

There is no reason why elements of that can’t be adapted and applied to women’s rugby in Scotland with better, more structured coaching and training, and Dunbar is convinced that the appointment of a full-time strength and conditioning coach is already starting to make a difference to the current women’s squad.

“I came in just as it was changing,” she said.

“Before then there was support, but it wasn’t as coordinated. Now we’ve got three weights sessions and conditioning sessions which we run as a group.

“Once you’re doing it as a group you know you’re doing it to the right intensity. A lot of people can say ‘done that, done that’, but it wasn’t at the level it needed to be at.

“Now there’s no escapes and there’s strict fitness testing criteria as well. If you don’t make the standard, you’re not going to be able to play.

“So there’s that pressure now as well; you’ve got to do your work.

“It’s been amazing. At the club games it’s totally changed the level we’re playing at. We’re so much fitter and stronger, and a lot of that is down to our strength and conditioning coach.

“We’re doing three or four sessions a week with him here at BT Murrayfield and you can just tell the difference with playing, especially when we went to play a game against Italy [in November] which was our first test.

“Our fitness was so much improved and if anything we were the fitter side. It was just some of our play wasn’t quite clinical enough, but I’d say we’re almost on a par with the other nations now.”

As well as building strength and conditioning off the field, the squad has also been gaining experience on it, with new faces getting the chance to stake a claim for the senior side having come through the Under 20 side, while the SRU also recently held an open session aimed at discovering new junior talent.

Dunbar believes the current squad is gelling well after spending more time together since last year’s Six Nations campaign.

“There’s been a few new people over the last Six Nations and building into this one; a lot of younger players coming in, but it’s a good squad,” she added.

“Those who have come in have come from the U20s, so they’ve got experience from that.

“We’ve been building experience. I came in last year, but we’ve been building and we’ve had more time together this year.

“We’ve had friendly matches, which we’ve never really had before – like away to Italy – that’s all been helping.

“[The last Six Nations] was disappointing. Obviously nobody likes to be losing, especially in the manner we lost a few games, but we had a few training days in April after that and it was a real coming together of the squad.

“We’d had new coaches in and everyone was just a bit overwhelmed.

“This year, we’ve had a pre-season camp in August and we’ve had camps every month since. So far the squad’s really gelled and sticking together.

“We lost against Italy, but it was a much more competitive performance in November.”

Scotland Women Six Nations Squad:

Forwards (16): Karen Dunbar (RHC Cougars), Deborah McCormack (Richmond), Rachael Cook (Watsonians), Heather Lockhart (Hillhead Jordanhill), Sarah Quick (Murrayfield Wanderers), Emma Wassell (Murrayfield Wanderers), Lisa Robertson (Murrayfield Wanderers), Lana Skeldon (Murrayfield Wanderers), Christianne Fahey (Murrayfield Wanderers), Lyndsay O’Donnell (Worcester), Fiona Sim (Saracens), Jade Konkel (Hillhead Jordanhill), Lindsey Smith (Hillhead Jordanhill), Bridget Millar-Mills (Waterloo), Jude Telford (Murrayfield Wanderers).

Backs (13): Lisa Martin (Murrayfield Wanderers), Gillian Inglis (Melrose), Nuala Deans (Wasps), Emma McBride (Hillhead Jordanhill), Claire Bain (RHC Cougars), Sarah Law (Murrayfield Wanderers), Chloe Rollie (Melrose), Eilidh Sinclair (Murrayfield Wanderers), Jenny Maxwell (Lichfield), Abi Evans (Northumbria University), Mhairi Graves (RHC Cougars), Hannah Smith (Hillhead Jordanhill), Hannah Sloan (Stewartry).

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