Sunday, 10 April 1994

World Cup: preview

Alasdair Reid

FOR all the honours the game has brought him the Lions tours, the Barbarians captaincy, the half century of caps Scott Hastings has still not set foot on what has become international rugby's biggest stage: a World Cup final.

And barring a Phoenix-like upturn in Scotland's fortunes in time for next year's tournament in South Africa, the only consolation he will have for this omission from an otherwise spangled CV, is that he went to school with someone who did.

Trick question? Can we now reveal that David Campese spent a secretive half-term at George Watson's College in the late 1970s, or that young Willie McCarling changed both name and nationality before heading off to Harlequins?

Neither, sadly, for Hastings's classmate - and, indeed, class captain was in fact Deborah Francis, who played for England against the USA in the women's World Cup final in 1991.

England lost that game in Cardiff, 19-6, but, according to Francis, they must be considered favourites for the second tournament, now christened the Women's Rugby World Championship, which kicks off at various venues around Scotland tomorrow: ``England have had a really good core of players for about eight years now. Their No8, scrum-half, and fly-half, can't really be competed with by anybody else in the world.''

Francis, however, will not be part of their side. After the 1991 competition, she took time out from the game to give birth to her son, Benjamin, and when she returned to international rugby it was with the Scottish side.

This, though, is no tale of another Anglo flying the saltire of convenience for the sake of a few more caps, for Francis, born in Bristol but raised in Edinburgh by Scottish parents, has always considered herself a Scot.

The nationality issue did not arise when she played her first international in 1986 for a Great Britain side. When that metamorphosed into an England side, Francis, who plays for Richmond, stuck with her friends and won the first of 12 English caps.

At that time, there was no Scottish side anyway, but when the prospect of Scotland playing internationals finally arose there was no question in her mind about which way to turn: ``I wanted to play for Scotland,'' she said. ``I wanted a blue shirt.''

In truth, she had also been frustrated by the actions of the English team management in 1991, when their failure to use their full squad in the early games saw 15 very tired players take the field against the USA, with the inevitable result. England had earlier come through a gruelling 13-0 semi-final win against France, when Francis scored a try, and she still carries the frustrations from the final.

``The England management put out their strongest team in every game. They had done it before, too, in the European Cup in 1988 and in both finals England were winning at half time. They didn't use the squad at all. It was so sad to watch.''

Francis is far happier with the Scottish management's way of doing things. She has been particularly impressed by the approach to selection taken by the manager, Ramsay Jones, and coach Roddie Stevenson, who recently travelled south to assess their Anglo players. By way of contrast, she points out that not one member of England's management was present when Richmond and Saracens, both including a number of English internationals, met in this year's WRFU Cup final.

Still, her assessment of the two countries' playing strengths put England, with their vastly greater experience, well in front. In Karen Almond, the fly-half who was a star of the 1991 tournament, they have a player who could have enormous influence again. Francis rates her highly.

``When she first started she was out in a class of her own. Not only is she a great athlete, but she also has a brilliant understanding of the game. The game has caught up on her a lot, but there hasn't been another fly half who has surpassed her.''

Scotland, though, may suffer for their inexperience: ``We've got a very good set of backs, certainly experienced from the centres outwards. The forwards are young, fit and enthusiastic and they can keep on running for ever, but they've not had the experience of tight play at international level.

``But the great thing is that in every game they play they learn so much; you can't believe the difference.

``I think where Scotland will struggle is that there aren't enough teams of a good enough standard. It was that way in England. It came on in huge leaps and bounds and then there was a stalemate for a couple of years.''

The first week of the championship will involve pool games. The 12 competing countries have been seeded in to four groups of three, the top seeds being USA, England, France, and Wales.

Scotland's place in the international order is measured by the fact that they are seeded third in the group which, ironically for Francis, is headed by England.

Scotland play England at Meggetland on Friday. On Wednesday, however, they meet Russia at the same venue and Francis is optimistic about their prospects: ``We're concentrating all our efforts on trying to win the Russia game,'' she said. ``We've heard nothing of them since the last tournament but I can't imagine that they've played a lot of internationals.''

The second week of the championship brings a round-robin Plate competition and knockout stages in the Shield competition and the championship itself, leading to the final at Raeburn Place on Sunday April 24. Given that the SWRU only volunteered as organisers three months ago, the efficiency is impressive to say the least.

Resourceful, too. The Scottish players will each pay over Pounds 400 for the privilege of representing their country over the next two weeks, while visiting players will have a range of accommodation that includes caravans and their hosts' living room floors.

Scott Hastings must be wondering where he went wrong.

Copyright (C) The Sunday Times, 1994

Source Citation
"Deborah shows true colours; Women's International Rugby." Sunday Times [London, England] 10 Apr. 1994

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