Sweden unsurprised by World Cup qualification

(IRB.COM) Wednesday 27 May 2009

 Sweden unsurprised by World Cup qualification
Sweden left it late to edge Italy on day one - Photo: Magnus Neck

Ecstatic. That was how Sweden coach Andy Tither described his side's feelings after learning they had qualified for Women's Rugby World Cup 2010 with one match still to play in the FIRA European Trophy on home soil last week.

Sweden's chances of securing one of the two remaining qualification places from Europe by topping Pool B were not rated too highly in some quarters, not least because they would have to beat both Six Nations side Italy and three-time World Cup participants Spain.

Within the squad, though, confidence was high and their self belief that they could cause not one, but two upsets proved justified as the two sides tipped to be battling it out for that one place saw their World Cup dreams ended by Sweden.

Italy were the first to fall with Jennifer Lindholm's last gasp try on her international debut sealing a 16-14 win, a result which made Spain sit up and take notice with coach Inés Etxegibel admitting she "didn't think they [Sweden] had a real chance of qualifying until Sunday [when they beat Italy]" and that "Italy had a much bigger chance".

Etxegibel, a veteran of three Women's Rugby World Cups as a player, then knew her side would be in for a battle against Sweden and so it proved with the decisive score proving to be replacement hooker Rebecka Lind's try seven minutes from time in Enkoping.

Preparation pays off

Sweden then learned they could celebrate as, short of not turning up to face Germany on the final day, they could not be usurped by Spain or Italy and would be joining 2006 Women's RWC runners up England, bronze medallists France, Ireland and Wales as Europe's representatives in the 12-team tournament in 2010.

It will not be their World Cup debut, having played in the inaugural tournament played in the Netherlands in 1998, but this is the first time qualification has been employed and for coach Tither their success in the Trophy is just rewards for the hard work the squad have put in.

"Well to be fair I think it is a shock to everyone else, but we have been quietly confident for a while," Tither told Total Rugby. "We have been building now for two years and the team has had probably the best preparation that it has ever had.

"We started our preparation in December, we had a game against Scotland in January and then we have played two games in England over Easter and a couple of games against Holland in late April, so we have had five games in preparation for the tournament.

"The girls are fitter now than they have ever been, we have got a tremendous physio and fitness conditioning guy, Theo Räuber, who has really worked hard with the girls and their fitness has improved tremendously this year.

"Those are the things that have made the difference to the team, they can focus for longer periods of time, they worked really hard on that and that was what won us the game against Spain, they were so focused for such a long period of time and despite the fact they went down by three points they were still very much in the game and battling right to the end and it was good to see the focus, it has been great."

One step at a time

Sweden may have beaten both a current and former Six Nations side back to back, but Tither is not about to start shouting from the rooftops that his side should immediately join the elite competition.

"I don't think we are going to quite go that far, [although] those are the aspirations. When I first took over two years ago we set out a goal that we wanted to qualify for the World Cup," continued Tither.

"We were aware it was going to be a difficult task and we were aware that we would have to beat a Six Nations side to get in there, so we did what we needed to do to achieve that and a key thing to that has been an improvement in fitness and as we play more games we get more organised."

Sweden's qualification is all the more remarkable when you consider the length of the domestic season, the climate meaning they "are not allowed to get on the grass before the 1st of May and then have to finish at the end of September".

"The difficulties we face are that we don't play rugby in the winter time in Sweden so we have to go abroad to play and that means that we have got extra costs on our international budget to get our preparation right."

A lasting legacy

The desire to see the season extended is high on Tither's wish list as he knows this will help encourage more girls and women to play the game, many of whose interest will have been whetted by the level of media coverage surrounding the European Trophy.

This is a sentiment echoed by Chris Sigsworth, the Rugby Development Manager for the Swedish Rugby Union who has been a driving force behind the legacy projects surrounding the tournament, including a school project involving more than 30 schools in 10 cities across the country.

Every rugby club, supported by the Union's part-time development officers, was asked to link up with schools to run a 10-a-side competition for 16 and 17 year olds boys and girls.

The semi finalists in the boys' and girls' competitions travelled to Stockholm last weekend to play the match with the winners presented with their trophies at half time in the Sweden v Germany match.

"The boys and girls got the chance to watch their national side and see that they could be playing for their country in the future and even qualify for the World Cup," explained Sigsworth.

"This competition has brought new young players into the game and, with more media interest also generated from Sweden's qualification, it has created a wider interest in the game around the country. We hope to build on its success in the future."