The inspiration behind Scotland's Grand Slam victory has decided on a change of direction in her illustrious career. By Alasdair Reid
FOR MOST of her time in international rugby, Kim Littlejohn displayed the sort of scoring touch that might have made you wonder if she had been coached in the art by Craig Brown. Her try in a bounce match against Sweden in 1994, a year after she had made her debut for Scotland, hinted at a fruitful career ahead, but another four years and more than 20 caps were to pass before she grabbed her second. When it arrived, though, the setting was close to perfect.
Inverleith, Edinburgh, March 2 this year. Scotland, so recently among the rabbits of international women's rugby, were chasing a Grand Slam in the last match of their Five Nations programme, against England. The match was 12 minutes old when a Scottish attack from a scrum appeared to break down near the English 22. Moving left, however, Littlejohn revived the move, exchanged passes near the touchline and darted over by the corner flag.
Strictly speaking, it was not the winning try, but as it accounted for more than half the points in Scotland's tenacious 8-5 victory, it deserves to be remembered as such. Moreover, although Littlejohn had never been the most prolific scoring machine in the past, it was perfectly fitting that the 27-year-old centre should claim it. She had, after all, played in the first Scottish international side, in 1993, and had captained the team through the remarkable half decade since that saw women's rugby in Scotland grow at an astonishing rate.
With good-humoured modesty, she plays down her own role in that development, but Ramsay Jones, the Scotland manager, has no doubt that she has been a central figure. Praising her qualities both as a player and as an inspiration to those around her, he pinpoints a moment shortly after the World Cup in 1994 which provided a critical impetus to what was to come.
"We had done okay at the World Cup, but it was clear we had a lot of catching up to do to compete with sides such as England and the USA," said Jones. "The management got all the players together and we told them we thought they had the talent to be among the best in the world. I think a lot of the players had difficulty taking that idea on board, but Kim believed it totally - and showed it. I think that was to prove a huge factor in what has happened since."
Despite an established programme and a four-year cycle between World Cups, most women internationals are still obliged to get involved in the background tasks that allow them to play their games. Littlejohn has done her fair share of organisational work, but her greater contribution has been on the pitch and in the immediate build-up to a match. Renowned for her defensive abilities, the meagre try tally against her own name is mitigated by the many scores she has created for others. According to Jones she also has a gift for bringing the best out of her fellow players.
"Everybody who meets her recognises that Kim's enthusiasm is fantastic, but she is very intelligent with it. The last words in the dressing room are always delivered by the captain after the coaches and management have left and, by all accounts, Kim's words are always carefully chosen. They're usually effective, too.
"She has a total focus on everything she does. She strives to be the best, in sport or in other activities, whether as an individual or as part of a team. It comes out as a mixture of dedication, enthusiasm and enormous motivational qualities. She also presents herself and her sport very well to the media and the public, and that has been an enormous help over the last few years."
Growing up in Kirkcaldy, Littlejohn's first taste of international competition was as a member of Scotland's gymnastics squad. However, she was a talented all-round athlete and when she began her computer science degree at Edinburgh university in 1988 she immersed herself in the sporting opportunities it offered. She played volleyball for Scottish universities and joined the recently-established rugby team.
Although she gave up rugby for a couple of years towards the end of her studies, the burgeoning club sector encouraged her to return to the game. She soon established herself in the powerful Edinburgh Accies side which formed the core of Scotland's early squads. The first international was played on St Valentine's Day in 1993 - a 10-0 win over Ireland - and Littlejohn has been a stalwart of the side ever since.
As a pioneer of women's rugby in Scotland, Littlejohn has not only played the game, but defined it. If that is a burden, it is one she carries lightly, but after captaining her country in 29 of the 30 internationals she has played, she recently relinquished the role. "I felt it was time somebody else got the chance to put their ideas and personality into the side and take it forward to the next World Cup," she said.
Although Scotland failed to live up to expectations raised by their Grand Slam success when the last World Cup was played in Holland in May - they were knocked out by the USA at the quarter-final stage - that disappointment did not influence her decision to stand down. A more pressing concern was that she wanted to develop her own game, and felt that captaincy stood in the way of doing so. "In future, I want to be able to be more risky than I've been in the past," she said. "When you are captain you are sometimes a bit inhibited, not wanting to set a bad example and watching out for the others in the team. It's nice to be able to shake off the responsibility and think more about your own game."
In helping to establish women's rugby, Littlejohn has tended to make her point with deeds rather than words. If gaining acceptance was ever a battle - and opposition has usually been absurdly overstated - it is now well and truly won. "We're way past that stage," said Littlejohn.
Copyright (C) The Sunday Times, 1998 **********
"Littlejohn tries a little freedom; Rugby Union:Profile." Sunday Times [London, England] 13 Sept. 1998