Munro selects exciting mix for Scotland v Ireland

SCOTLAND’S 2017 Six Nations Championship kicks-off this Friday evening when Scotland Women take on their Irish counterparts in Cumbernauld. Head coach Shade Munro has selected an exciting mix of young promise and proven experience in his 23-woman side who run out at 6.35pm at Broadwood Stadium, a central venue which has become the home stage for the national side over the last few seasons, writes Isobel Irvine.

Steady progress in training and preparation has seen more camps and fixtures for the extended squad over the last two seasons and, of course, the announcement of Scotland’s first professional female player in the shape of Jade Konkel, pictured.

The Inverness-born back row secures the number 8 shirt against Ireland, having only recently returned from injury that kept her out of the Scots’ two World Cup qualifiers against Spain in November. A commanding attacking presence in the back row, fierce tackler and powerhouse in the pack, Konkel is sure to be a target for the Irish opposition – and will be keenly watched by those charting the progress of Scotland’s first female professional.

Flanking Konkel in the opening match are 27-year-old Karen Dunbar at blindside and 19-year-old Louise McMillan at openside. Airdrie-born Dunbar, who won the first of her 16 national caps against Italy during the 2014 Championship, has experience throughout the back row is renowned for her tenacity and physicality, always looking for opportunities to involve herself in play on and off the ball. At the other end of the appearance scale, McMillan won both her two caps for Scotland earlier this season in the double-header against Spain during November’s World Cup qualifiers where she impressed enough to start against the Irish this time round. Despite her relative youth, she has graduated through the national age grades and currently captains her club side, Hillhead Jordanhill.

Resuming their partnership elsewhere in the pack are locks Emma Wassell and Deborah McCormack. Both with 18 caps for their country, 22-year-old Wassell will don the 4 jersey, having made her debut in the blue shirt against the Irish in 2014. Key in the lineout, the former pupil of Ellon Academy – where she developed an eye for the ball playing netball – is currently a trainee chartered accountant, so will be counting on her second row compadre to figure equally impressively as a dynamic ball carrier and effective distributor. With 22 years of rugby experience – she began playing as a 10-year-old for her local side Medway RFC – McCormack also made her Six Nations debut against the Irish in 2014. A member of the recent English Premiership-winning Richmond squad, the computer science teacher moved to Aylesford Bulls at the start of this season – and could potentially be lining up, later in the Championship, against club mates Racheal Burford, Fiona Pocock, Leanne Riley and Vickii Cornborough at The Stoop against England.

Packing down in Friday’s front row, meanwhile is the 72-cap trio of Tracy Balmer at loosehead, Rachel Malcolm at hooker and Lindsey Smith in the tighthead berth. The experienced Balmer, who captained Scotland for three seasons (21012-15) and has pulled on the blue jersey on 38 occasions, provides a solid platform in the scrum and adds impact in attack while Smith who has also been capped for Scotland Women 7s and currently works as community manager with Glasgow Warriors – will be instrumental in applying a wide rugby knowledge accrued not only through her own 32 caps but as coach with Scotland Women’s under-19 squad. Newbie in the front row Malcolm made her international debut against Spain in the opening World Cup qualifier earlier this season, doubling her cap total in the deciding leg. Though this is will be her first Championship experience, her male siblings have represented Scottish rugby at age grade level and she has pulled on the national jersey herself in hockey.

The halfback pairing for this opening match is also a blend of youth and experience with Sarah Law at scrum half and Helen Nelson at stand-off. Though both are aged 22 and took up the game as six-year-olds – for Penicuik and Lochaber respectively – Law has been capped 25 times, having made her full international debut against England in 2013 while Nelson’s four caps came more recently against France, Ireland and Spain (2), winning player of the match in her third game. Law’s experience – she’s played in every Six Nations match since her 2013 debut – and rugby brain – she scored a wonderful opportunist try against the Spanish in November – will be matched by Nelson’s impressive athletic form for her club and in her debut performances in the national jersey.

Moving from her more regular spot at 10 to captain the team, for the second successive season, at inside centre is the talismanic Lisa Martin. Submersed in the sport from an early age, Martin played through the age levels to make her debut against Ireland in Scotland’s final 2010 World Cup game – which was also Scotland’s most capped player, Donna Kennedy’s 115th and last appearance. Fittingly graduate Martin then captained the University of Edinburgh team to victory in the inaugural Donna Kennedy Cup in 2015. Expect Martin to be everywhere on the pitch, directing operations, supporting in attack, shoring up in defence and generally putting in the model captain’s performance that she’s displayed over the last year.

Partnering Martin, at outside centre, is Lisa Thomson. The Borders-born bullet, who secured the first of her seven caps in last season’s Six Nations opener against England, subsequently touched down for her first score later in the tournament against Italy. A footballer in addition to playing rugby in her earlier teenage years, Thomson’s searing pace and eye for the gap is sure to produce an exciting midfield combination.

Another pairing that will be keenly studied is the wing duo of Rhona Lloyd and Megan Gaffney. Lloyd, in the left berth, has touched down twice during her seven Scotland appearances to date, though registered three tries when she made her (non cap) debut for the national side against Spain in 2015. Raised in a rugby-mad family, her wide sporting background – she’s competed in football, basketball and athletics – has produced a flying winger who’s not afraid to take her chances.

Set to speed up the right wing, East Lothian native Gaffney graduated through the age grades to make her tournament debut against England in 2012, having scored in the blue jersey for the first time (twice) against Netherlands the previous year. A seasoned sevens player her selection for the extended GB7s squad for the Rio Olympics and subsequent months training full time with her English and Welsh peers broadened the knowledge and skills of the proven speedster who always comes up with extra gas in the tank to make the hard yards.

Completing the starting line-up, at fullback, is 21-year-old Chloe Rollie. A product of Scottish Rugby’s pathway and Scotland Women under-20 squad, Chloe made her international debut away against France in the opening match of the 2015 6 Nations and now has 12 caps to her credit. When given ball, the sparky performer shows her pace in attack and is a big tackler. After moving from Melrose, she was instrumental in Murrayfield Wanderers’ 2016 Sarah Beaney Cup win, dotting down with two terrific tries.

The first fifteen is bolstered by an equally impressive selection on the bench. Lively flanker Lucy Park, who won her first cap last season, is joined by the current leading cap holder Heather Lockhart. The 44-year-old Hillhead Jordanhill prop, has lined up against the Irish for over a decade and bring enormous experience and nous to the pack. Inducted last year into the University of Edinburgh Hall of Fame – alongside Sir Chris Hoy and Eric Liddell – her reputation reaches further into the Europe where she warrants a page on the French Wikipedia!

She’s joined by fellow prop Katie Dougan, who rediscovered her earlier passion for rugby while at university – where she also played shinty – and made her Scotland debut against Italy in 2015. Second-row replacement Sarah Bonar, meanwhile, impressed during Scotland’s November fixtures against Spain and could add to her three caps this spring with back row substitute Jemma Forsyth, enjoying her second phase with the national team, returning last season to add to her initial ten caps (won between 2011-12).

Supplementing pace from the bench will be winger Jenny Maxwell, a Scotland Women Sevens specialist as well as earning ten caps for the full national side – a great solo break saw her score Scotland’s first try against Ireland last season. And Maxwell literally arrives with a tiger in her tank – a lifelong Leicester Tigers fan, she used to work in the club’s Welford Road store on match days and weekends! Maxwell is joined by experienced wing Lauren Harris, who also boasts an impressive sevens cv, and whose already lightning pace and quick rugby brain benefited from a recent period working and playing in the southern hemisphere, turning out for Wellington in the NPC.

Completing the bench is fullback Eilidh Sinclair, former pupil of women’s rugby hotbed Community School of Auchterarder, who continues to be remembered for her glorious intercept try against England in their own back yard in 2015 championship. Dogged and a mazy runner at pace, Sinclair’s quiet determination is sure to add another edge to the mix.

Following their opening game against Ireland, Scotland will host Wales on Friday 24 February (6.30pm) and Italy on Friday March 17 (6.30pm) as part of a series of double headers with the Scotland U20 team for the second successive year.

Tickets are available HERE. Adult tickets £10 (valid for both matches), with free entry for senior citizens, U18 and Scotland season pass holders.

Scotland Women team to meet Ireland Women at Broadwood Stadium, Cumbernauld, kick-off 6.35pm, Friday 3 February

15-9: Chloe Rollie * (Murrayfield Wanderers); Megan Gaffney (Edinburgh University), Lisa Thomson * (Edinburgh University), Lisa Martin (C) * (Murrayfield Wanderers); Rhona Lloyd * (Edinburgh University); Helen Nelson * (Murrayfield Wanderers), Sarah Law * (Murrayfield Wanderers/Edinburgh University); 1-8: Tracy Balmer (Worcester), Rachel Malcolm (Lichfield), Lindsey Smith (Hillhead Jordanhill), Emma Wassell * (Murrayfield Wanderers), Deborah McCormack (Aylesford Bulls), Karen Dunbar * (RHC Cougars), Louise McMillan (Hillhead Jordanhill), Jade Konkel ** (Hillhead Jordanhill).
Replacements 16-23: Lucy Park* (Murrayfield Wanderers), Heather Lockhart (Hillhead Jordanhill), Katie Dougan (Edinburgh University), Sarah Bonar (Lichfield), Jemma Forsyth (Hillhead Jordanhill), Jenny Maxwell (Lichfield), Lauren Harris (Melrose), Eilidh Sinclair * (Murrayfield Wanderers).

* BT Sport Scottish Rugby Academy Stage 2 player 2016/17
** BT Sport Scottish Rugby Academy Stage 3 player 2016/17

Scotland Women 2017 Six Nations Fixtures

Friday 3 February

Scotland Women v Ireland Women, Broadwood Stadium (kick-off 6.35pm) (live on RTE)

Saturday 11 February

France Women v Scotland Women, Marcel Deflandre, La Rochelle (kick-off 9pm local/8pm GMT) (live on France 4)

Friday 24 February

Scotland Women v Wales Women, Broadwood Stadium (kick-off 6.30pm) (live on S4C/BBC Wales)

Saturday 11 March

England Women v Scotland Women, TheTwickenham Stoop (kick-off 1pm) (live on Sky Sports)

Friday 17 March

Scotland Women v Italy Women, Broadwood Stadium (kick-off 6.30pm) (live on Eurosport IT)