By her own admission, the 2015/16 season was perhaps the best yet for Edinburgh University’s Women’s first XV, but Head Coach Claire Cruikshank is desperate for more. The return of the Varsity game to Murrayfield for a second consecutive season will provide the perfect platform to launch another push for honours this campaign.
A year ago, for the first time ever, the home of Scottish rugby provided the setting for a stunning showcase of the best of student sport, a day that proved memorable for Cruikshank and her side who ran out comfortable 36-7 winners over St Andrews. That determination and attention to detail is already evident with the squad undergoing thorough pre-season preparations in the build up to the game.
“Preparations are going really well. We started back in pre-season earlier than we’ve ever done before. Some players, as we speak at the start of September, are in week 8 of pre-season which means we should be in a better position than last year in terms of fitness and skill level”, said Cruikshank.
“We’ve also had 11 players involved in Scottish Rugby’s East v West match, where the best players in Scotland pit themselves against each other in a match at BT Murrayfield and one of our players has also been involved with England U20s in a three-match test series against Canada”, continued Cruikshank.
“We’ve also got a new coaching set up with Gordon Lyon joining me in coaching the 1s, three former Scotland Women’s internationalists and all alumni, Louise Dalgliesh, Beth Dickens and Ruth Slaven providing 2s coaching or specialist sessions, alongside Scott Kelly who will again provide specialist sessions for the players.”
As a spectacle, the script could not have been written any better. A crowd of over 9,500 were there to see the Women’s first XV triumph and, while their male counterparts were pipped by a last minute converted try, the drama that was served up was a fitting celebration of student sport. Cruikshank described the occasion as an important experience for her players, running out in front of the second highest attendance of that weekend in the whole of Scotland.
“It’s so rare in Women’s Rugby to get to play in front of such crowds, so the experience last season was one the players won’t ever forget”, Cruikshank said. “Last season’s match was the second highest attended sporting event in Scotland behind the Celtic match that day, we also believe it’s one of the highest attended one off student sport events in the UK. The crowd were fantastic last year and we hope they will get behind the team again this year, and of course that we increase numbers supporting further.”
It goes without saying that no one game is the same as the last and, with the turnover of players involved in university sport higher than elsewhere, Cruikshank admitted it is difficult to know what to expect this time around from St Andrews. This is especially so given that St Andrews play in a different league, but the Head Coach expects a challenge nonetheless.
“We don’t know too much about St Andrews as we are in different leagues but they have been back in pre-season so will be well prepared”, said Cruikshank. “We need to ensure we perform to the best of our ability and execute our game plan in order to defeat St Andrews. They gave us a real stern test last year, despite being in a lower league, and played really well, they will be looking to take a scalp this year.”
Last season Edinburgh’s Women’s first XV used the experience at Murrayfield as the catalyst for a title push losing just twice and defeating eventual champions Northumbria in January of this year. That performance saw them qualify for the BUCS Championship but they were knocked out by Gloucestershire at the quarter-final stage, while their sevens side managed to finish as runners-up, only behind Gloucestershire as they were beaten by a cruel last gasp winner.
“15/16 was probably our most successful season. Unfortunately, we lost in the BUCS Championship quarter-final to a very strong Gloucestershire side when we were missing nine first team starters through Six Nations call ups or injuries, so the players who came in did really well to remain so close to a side packed with quality,” said Cruikshank.
“In the 7s we finished runners up in the UK to Gloucestershire, a great achievement by everyone in a tough format. Sadly we lost by two points in injury time in the final play of the match – it’s one that still hurts us all.
“This and other disappointments last season, despite being our best season in recent times, drives us to want to achieve more in 16/17”, added Cruikshank.
“This isn’t going to be easy- we obviously play all our matches against opposition from England and the RFU have created hubs in England where their best young talents are heading and they also provide additional funding to these Universities- but we are very clear we want to be the number one ranked University in the UK by winning the BUCS Premier League, BUCS Championships and also BUCS 7s. We have also entered the SRU Sarah Beaney Cup and this will see us challenge ourselves against the best Scottish club teams, and being as ambitious as I am, we want to at least get to the final but ultimately win this too”, admitted Cruikshank.
A lot of hard work has gone on behind the scenes, in strength and conditioning, in the film room, and on the training pitch to prepare the squad for the challenges ahead. Cruikshank herself was effusive in her praise for the Edinburgh set-up and the work put in by her coaching staff. The partnership between the club and Scotland rugby is also pivotal according to the Head Coach.
“We have a fantastic set up here at Edinburgh. The performance support we are able to access is second to none, the players have access to professional S&C coaching, fantastic medical care through FASIC, detailed video analysis, and a very committed and forward thinking student committee. We are also lucky to have five coaches alongside myself meaning we can cater for all standards of players, have a successful club and we are now entering a second team into BUCS (this makes us the only university or club in Scotland to have a second team)”.
“When I started coaching six years ago, it was only me, so that was challenging when you have 60+ people at training. We are now able to ensure the coaching is specific for the players’ needs from complete beginners to internationals. The links we’ve made with Sheila Begbie (Head of Women’s & Girls’ Rugby) and Shade Munro (Scotland Women’s Head Coach) has allowed us to not only attract some of the best young talent to the University of Edinburgh, but also ensure they are available to play for the University and to also look at their individual player development alongside the National coach”, said Cruikshank.
The often unseen work behind the scenes has undoubtedly fostered an environment for success. It is little wonder that Edinburgh have been able to attract some of the most talented players in the country and the international recognition that has come the way of several members of the squad is testament to that work according to Cruikshank.
“I am very proud. It is a testament to their hard work but also the programmes we have in place to support them that they can achieve this high level whilst at University”, Cruikshank said. “Yes there is a lot of behind the scenes hard work: planning, reviewing matches, individual player meetings but it’s something I love doing and when the players buy into this process and culture and make improvements it’s really satisfying, not only satisfying seeing those achieve international recognition but just to see those who just improve during their time at Edinburgh.
“The standard of university rugby across the UK is growing, you just need to look at the number of senior internationalists who play in the BUCS leagues for Scotland, England and Wales to see this”, Cruikshank added. “This is only going to increase with the setting up of these performance hubs in England and our challenge is to keep improving.”
The organisers of the Varsity game remain hopeful of smashing last year’s attendance and, if the game proves to be half as dramatic as last year, then we are surely in for a treat. As a university, Edinburgh won the overall Varsity championship, but for Cruikshank and her side their focus is simply on retaining their title. Cruikshank offered a message for the Edinburgh student community ahead of the game, a rallying cry, to pack out Murrayfield and get behind both the women and the men.
“Get along to Varsity. What better way to start the year than going along to cheer on your University? The atmosphere is only special for the players because the supporters/students make it that good.” The Women’s game kicks off at 5pm on Saturday and is followed directly afterwards by the Men’s first XV.
Image courtesy of Edinburgh University Sports Union