All-women Scots rugby is assembling menacing skills as the national team limbers up for the World Cup next spring, reports Ginny Clark.
LAST night in Edinburgh Ian McGeechan was once again the focus of attention as Scottish rugby paid tribute to one of its finest sons.
However, honouring the man who bowed out as Scotland and Lions coach at the end of last season was not the sole purpose of this gala dinner. The future of women's rugby was high on the agenda and the question of how to raise cash to help send the women's national team to their first appearance in the World Cup.
Holland 1994 will mark a tremendous achievement for the women, who readily admit that the sport here is still some way behind the south, not to mention other parts of the globe.
Nevertheless, Scotland has come a long way in a short time. Just 18 months ago our women had to pick themselves up from a resounding 74-0 defeat by England. That was in the bad old days, when they were not officially recognised by the Scottish Rugby Union and the organisation came under the control of the Women's Rugby Football Union of England.
Not so now. A 10-0 defeat of Ireland earlier this year gave notice of the squad's intention to put Scotland firmly in contention for international honours. This new season brings, not only new challenges for the recently formed Scottish Women's Rugby Union, but the support and back-up of associate membership of the SRU.
Predictably, the sport has had its critics. Sarah Floate, of the SWRU, says: ``There are still some men who think that women just should not be playing rugby, that it's not suitable for us. And, initially, a lot of the guys who actually came along to our matches, did so for the novelty.
``But we are winning them over. I think they have been surprised by our skill level, the emphasis on touch and control. Some of those men are now among our strongest supporters. Both Gavin Hastings and David Sole have given us practical help, with coaching as well.''
Although their sights are firmly set on Holland in April, the SWRU will not forget that they still have a lot of ground-work to do. The women's league has three divisions, with a total of 20 clubs. But only West of Scotland and Edinburgh Academicals are women's sections of established sides. The remainder are mostly university or college teams.
``That is definitely the way forward,'' says Floate. ``In fact, we may eventually have two leagues, one for clubs and one for university sides.''
Meanwhile, the SWRU has another problem to address, namely the virtual non-existence of girls' rugby at secondary school level. It is one that their counterparts in women's football have also tackled recently, planning an under-16 set up and instigating coaching programmes.
Floate agrees: ``At primary school the `new image' version of rugby is growing in popularity. This is played with both boys and girls in each side. But once they start secondary, and are segregated in sport, the girls usually have no rugby level to progress to.
``Obviously we hope to change this and we're getting help from the SRU eventually to set up a new structure, plus the organisation of special coaching and schools courses.''
It is simple enough. If girls' rugby is to go on the secondary timetable, you need trained staff to teach it. That means a determined publicity campaign to get more women involved in the sport.
And there is no question that success on the international field would be a great boost for Scotland, attracting more followers as well as silencing the critics.
The squad will have several opportunities to do just that before their World Cup trek, facing Wales on December 19, North of England on January 9 and Ireland on February 13. So, as a new season gets under way, Floate, Edinburgh Accies centre, has another, more immediate concern. Cash.
Her own team has just announced the biggest deal of women's rugby in Scotland so far, sponsored by Keir Moodie, Edinburgh solicitors. But it is a slightly different story when it comes to the national side.
``The tribute to Ian has helped, but there is still a lot of fund raising to do on the way to the World Cup target of Pounds 30,000. We were having talks with a potential sponsor, but that fell through.
``We're now hoping that there will be a big response to our sponsorship raffle. Companies or individuals can buy Pounds 180 tickets.''
The winners of a draw in two months' time will become the team's official sponsor.
Whether Scotland's chances in the World Cup turn out to be something of a lottery also remains to be seen.
The women will carry the best wishes and hopes of many when they set off for Holland. The ultimate aim must be to line up against champions America or other main contenders, such as England, the runner-up last time around.
But what kind of a hope does Scotland really have in the first stage?
``I reckon we'll do well,'' says Floate. ``We might just go through.''
Copyright (C) The Sunday Times, 1993
"The female pack attacks with new-found pride; Scotland." Sunday Times [London, England] 3 Oct. 1993