Preview: Women’s Premiership final
Watsonians and Stirling County will fight it out to be crowned champions of the 30th women’s Premiership competition tomorrow in the final at Myreside.
Watsonians went through the regular season unbeaten and will host the final at their own ground having secured top spot.
The Edinburgh outfit were victors of the one meeting between the two sides so far this season, winning 39-21 at Myreside.
Vice-Captain Ailie Tucker said: “It’s been such a good season for us, a lot of hard work, a lot of effort, and to go undefeated in the regular league has been fantastic.
“It’s been a great thing to witness, the girls have put in a lot of hard work and it’s been to great to see it pay off.
“Winning it would mean everything to me, and I’m sure to a lot of the girls. It would be very, very emotional I think, and it would be a great advocate for what this team can do, and it’s a chance to prove true that we can do it and go out there on Saturday and give it an absolute belter of a shot.”
Watsonians have trained at Oriam this week, sharing some of the facilities used by Scotland Women during international camps.
Ailie added: “The facilities here are second to none really, it’s a great work environment and it’s great that we can all get together and use the gym together as a team, working hard.
“And then being able to use the indoor facilities when the weather’s been so awful recently, it’s been great to get a good team run out there and finalise small details that maybe wouldn’t be possible in the wind and rain.”
Watsonians won the Sarah Beaney Cup at Scottish Gas Murrayfield just seven months ago, and Head Coach Bruce Millar has reflected on his side’s journey in the time since.
He said: “It’s gone brilliantly, you’d have to say. The cup was a great way to finish last season, we felt we’d underperformed in the league, there was a lot of changes obviously, I had just come in at that point, maybe took a bit longer than I ought to have to introduce my way of playing so that took time. We were very short of players as well, I think a lot of people had stepped down the season before so we struggled, we very rarely managed to turn a squad of more than about 18 or 19 last year.
“Moving on to this year, we’ve managed to bring in a few players, we brought in Gordie (Gordon Lyon) and Clare (Bain) is with me as well, two brilliant coaches so that’s all just aligned to allow us to really attack this league season.
“A lot of versatile players as well, particularly across the back five of the scrum there’s a lot of people who can slot into different places. You’ve got Rachel Law for example, who has played a bit of 9 this season, and a bit of 15 and has played brilliantly there, we could chuck her in the back row if we wanted as well!
“This year in that one game at Myreside, we got off to a great start and got a very healthy lead, I think against any other side it would have been enough to win it, but Stirling just never lie down and came back into it, and I’ll admit that a one point I thought we were going to lose it because they got within two or three points, but we found another gear and managed to get another two of three tries. But you just know that they’ll never lie down. They’re another very complete team, they’ve got some great ball carriers, a good solid set piece but also a lot of pace in their whole back division really. They can go through you or they can go round you, so defensively we’re aware that we’re going to have to be really strong this weekend.”
Watsonians have recently established the Wildcats, the club’s youth section, and several of their young players will be in attendance on Sunday.
Captain Rachel Malcolm said: “It’s something we’ve been lacking over the last number of years is that pathway to come up and through.
“We’ve got loads of younger girls who are coming to joining us at 17, 18 years of age, and if we’re able to create our own pathway where we’re able to get them as they finish school, and we’ve got an U15s, an U18s and then they come up into the senior squad, that would be fantastic.
“Having the opportunity to showcase what we can do in front of them, I think a few of them are going to be ball girls, a few of them are going to be mascots and things, so to have there just adds to the whole community that we’re trying to create.”
Meanwhile, Stirling County Head Coach Mark Ainsworth has looked back positively on the season so far, and believes his side have improved since the defeat to Watsonians earlier in the league.
“On the whole, the season has gone really well. This time last year we’d only lost one game, this time this year we have only lost one game so we’re going in similar to last year.
“We started the season with two of our major players missing – Rachel Shankland and Megan Kennedy – so that was a huge void that we had to fill but we did that with the young players coming up. It probably took us till halfway through the season to get up and running. Thankfully, the last half dozen games we have managed to find form that the coaches were happy with.
“In terms of this Saturday, we are the two best teams in the league. We’ve only played Watsonians once this season and they gave us a bit of a lesson, it wasn’t our finest moment, but we have improved a lot since then.
“It’s going to be a game where whoever turns up on the day is going to win. Whoever breaks the most tackles, will probably win.”
Mark has been joined by coaches Megan Kennedy and Kenny Craig, who he credits with adding a stability to their sessions.
““They’ve brough consistency. The message they give week on week is really consistent. Rugby isn’t a difficult game, we work on the basic skills, work on team structure but it’s consistent.
“Week on week we try and build and learn. As the season has gone on, it’s clear that their coaching has paid off, they bring a huge amount to the squad.”
Mark also pinned some of their success on the emergence of young players, who have come from youth rugby to take on Premiership opposition and thrive.
“It’s a big step up from U18 to the Premiership, no matter what anyone says, and it did take them a little while to blend in and find their feet, but I’m really pleased with how they have finished the season.
“I think a lot of credit has to go to a couple of our older players; Jodie Murdoch and Ailsa Luke, who was captain last year. Although she stepped down as captain, she’s really led from the front this season and has sort of filled the void that Megan (Kennedy) left. It’s been really positive that the older players have upped their game as well.”
County go into the final as reigning champions, having beaten Corstorphine Cougars 27-8 in the final for a maiden title.
Captain Jodie Murdoch reflected: ““I can’t really put it into words if I’m honest. I think being part of the older group of girls who have been year for ten years plus, we remember when we were always bottom of the league and you just sort of resign yourself to ‘it’s never going to be for us’, but last season was a dream. The day itself was incredible.”
Stirling have been helped by the point-scoring talent of fly-half Ceitidh Ainsworth, daughter of Mark, who has wracked up 44 conversions to go with her leading haul of 13 tries, narrowly ahead of Watsonians’ Sophie Anderson, who has 11 tries.
Jodie said: “I mean, Ceitidh specifically has been a game-changer for us. To play with an attacking 10 like her is a dream. This season what we have improved on as a team has been our maturity and a lot of that has been led by Ceitidh.
“Some of our games have been quite tight, but her composure in these moments is key. For such a young player it’s really impressive, you don’t see it that often.”
To retain the title on Sunday, Jodie believes her side will have to keep their cool better than they managed to in the earlier fixture.
“We’re going to need composure. The last time we played Watsonians we lost our heads and they did teach us a lesson.
“We know they’re going to be hard, they are unbeaten for a reason and we will need to up our intensity, but ultimately it is whoever turns up on the day.”