A trip to France just a week after your appointment is not a prospect many would relish, but for new Scotland coach Karen Findlay it is a chance to see how her charges fair in their opening match of the RBS Women’s Six Nations 2011 against one of the world’s top teams.
Findlay, who won 85 caps for Scotland – 52 of them as captain, takes over from Gary Parker and admits she has been “chasing her tail” to prepare a side without experienced stalwarts Lynne Reid and Donna Kennedy who retired after last year’s Women’s Rugby World Cup.
“I am definitely not going to go as far as to say it’s a nice way to start the Six Nations because they are obviously a really good team France, but we have got to play them at some point so it may as well be now,” Findlay told Total Rugby Radio earlier this week.
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“As with the French men’s team, the women you never know what you are going to get, on their day they are as good as any team in the Women’s Game at throwing the ball around and playing fast, expansive rugby.
“I don’t doubt that now we are going to be playing them on home turf, having lost away to Scotland in the Six Nations they are going to have a point to prove and I would think it will be in front of a good-sized home crowd because they always generate a lot of home support.
“No-one is under any illusion that this isn’t going to be hard, but it is a test that is going to let us see where we are, it is going to expose some of our new players to what it takes to play at this level alongside some of the senior colleagues.
“What I do know is that France are going to have to fight for every inch, that is for sure.”
Scotland stunned France on the opening weekend of last year’s Championship, Lucy Millard scoring twice – including the final minute winning try – to seal a 10-8 victory at Lasswade. However, Millard, one of the world’s best centres, will be absent and sorely missed.
Findlay, who has been head coach of leading women’s club Richmond in England for the last five years, believes, though, that the new players coming into the squad provide “some really great pockets of potential” for the future of Scottish rugby.
“Being honest this Six Nations for us is about taking each game as it comes and building a performance game on game,” explained Findlay, who takes charge of a Scotland side who finished eighth at last year’s Women’s Rugby World Cup in England.
No fixation on results
“It is going to be about trying our new principles and patterns of play, seeing how the players adapt and apply those and gauging where we are against the other teams that are going to be involved in the competition to see what it is we are going to have to do going forward.
“From a coaching perspective it is not just going to be about a fixation on results for us this year, it is about seeing how various components in our game work, where we can make the improvements in specific areas in order to secure and the work towards our long-term success.”
Whatever the outcome at the Stade Eric Durand in Viry-Châtillon, near Paris, on Friday evening, one thing Findlay is certain about is the level of competitiveness people can expect in the Women’s Six Nations, a competition that has been dominated by England with four Grand Slams in five years.
“The Women’s Six Nations is no different to the men’s tournament, it is hugely competitive. Every nation wants to be top of the table come March and every, player coach and management team member involved will have done everything within their respective powers to be the best prepared they can be going into the competition.
“It is fiercely contested and particularly this year given it is the first in a four-year cycle leading into the next Women’s Rugby World Cup in 2014. Every team bar England who have yet again demonstrated the strength and depth in their playing numbers, names that you have seen at the Women’s Rugby World Cup last year very much still featured in the current teams.
“Every team I would say bar England seems to be back at the beginning of a four-year cycle and again really starting to build from a clean sheet, so who knows what is going to happen in this tournament.”
Italian women aiming high
The second game of the opening weekend sees Ireland travel to the Stadio Mario Battaglini in Rovigo to face Italy on Saturday with coach Philip Doyle handing debuts to centre Geraldine Rea and wing Niamh Kavanagh.
Five other uncapped players are named on the bench with Ireland, like many of their Six Nations rivals, undergoing a period of rebuilding following post Women’s Rugby World Cup 2010 retirements.
Captain Fiona Coghlan, lively number 8 Joy Neville and full back Niamh Briggs will again be key figures for Ireland as they seek to better their third place finishes of the last two Championships.
Doyle has admitted to not knowing what to expect from an Italian side who are further down the rebuilding road than their opponents, having begun the process more than a year ago after failing to qualify for WRWC 2010.
Italy captain Paola Zangirolami, as a result, hopes to see improvement on last year’s victory over Wales and draw with Scotland which saw them equal their best finish of fifth.
“This is the fifth time we have participated in the Six Nations and our objective is to win at least two matches this year,” explained Zangirolami. “Ireland, Scotland and Wales are squads against which we believe we can do well.”
England favourites again
The weekend will climax on Sunday when tournament favourites England begin their quest for a record sixth successive crown against Wales, who endured a difficult year in 2010 and picked up the Six Nations wooden spoon.
England have not seen the retirement of any key or first choice players since suffering another Women’s Rugby World Cup final loss to New Zealand and coach Gary Street has named his strongest possible side to face Wales.
Fly half Katy McLean has taken over the captaincy from Catherine Spencer and is only too aware of the damage of underestimating Wales, who enjoyed an historic 16-15 win the last time the side’s met in the Principality in 2008.
“The World Cup was a massive disappointment but we have had time to work out what went wrong and how to move forward,” admitted McLean.
“We absolutely cannot dwell on the past. The Six Nations is upon us and we must set down a marker on Sunday. Playing Wales is always tough, but playing Wales in Wales is even tougher. We need to prepare as hard as we possibly can and concentrate fully on this new campaign.
“This is certainly a big tournament for us but we are so excited about it. Playing Wales is quite a way to kick off the tournament, but there are some real showcase games this season as part of the Six Nations.”
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