MONDAY’S demoralising 38-13 defeat for Scotland against Italy in the opening match of their 2021 World Cup [playing in 2022] qualifying campaign provided a painful reminder of just how hard it is for the national women’s team to keep pace with their bigger and better resourced rivals from around the globe. 

There was a time when Scotland would barely break sweat whilst despatching the Azzurri. The two nations faced each other four times between 1997 and 2007 and the Italians didn’t get within 20 points on any of those occasions (the average margin was 25.5 points). But since 2011, Scotland have managed just one win from 11 meetings, when they scraped a 14-12 result at Broadwood in March 2017, and Italy’s average winning margin during that period has been just under 19 points. 

There was extenuating circumstances which might help explain Scotland’s lacklustre performance in this game, mostly related to the playing restrictions faced by a sizable chunk of Bryan Easson’s team as a result of Covid. However, that has not been significantly more debilitating than their Italian counterparts, who have also had no domestic rugby during the last 18 months.  

Scotland weren’t helped by Jade Konkel – their No8 and star player when fully fit – being well off the pace, and her plight is worth considering. When she became the first woman to sign a full-time contract with Scottish Rugby on an academy deal in June 2016, it was hailed as a “a significant step for both Scottish Rugby and the women’s game” by Murrayfield Chief Executive Mark Dodson, with the hope being that the then 22-year-old would soon be followed into the pro ranks by many more talented female players. 

Just four-and-a-half years later, Konkel missed the 2021 Six Nations because she was training to be a firefighter, and this was her Scotland comeback game. She had remained team's outstanding  player up until taking that break, so it wasn’t a case of her failing to cut it. Rather, after spells playing in France with Lille and England with Harlequins, she reached the conclusion aged 27 that it was time to start looking at a career outside rugby. 

It is important to note that Konkel has never voiced any complaint about how her pro rugby career has played out, but you have to wonder how frustrated she is deep down that there wasn’t a route for her to really see how far she could go. 

Others who have followed similar career paths, such as Chloe Rollie, Lisa Thomson and Helen Nelson, will inevitably find themselves contemplating similar decisions in the near future, if they have not done so already.  

Scottish Rugby appear to be stuck between a rock and a hard place on this one. Actively encouraging and incentivising their best players to go compete in the English Allianz Premiership 15s (non-salaried for those not on an RFU central contract) should help raise standards in the national team but consequently weakens the domestic game north of the border. There is merit in the argument that a successful national team with real role models is key to growing the base, but what use is that without a strong club structure to attract, develop and retain emerging players? 

In fairness to Murrayfield, they have made all the right noises about being committed to growing the women’s game, with their recently published ‘strategic approach’ for the next three years, which states that the focus will be on three key themes of ‘Wellbeing’, ‘Winning’ and – crucially in the context of this article – ‘Women’. 

Officials at clubs which have proven track-records in driving the women’s game in Scotland sense a genuine desire from Murrayfield to really deliver in this area, although the detail of how that will be achieved remains fuzzy at the moment and the proof – as always – will be in the pudding. 

What these same officials do stress is that while it is the role of the governing body to assist and support in the process of growing the women’s game, the battle will be won or lost at the pit-face by clubs either deciding that they are serious about making it a game for all, or that they quite liked the way things were before and branching out seems a bit too much like hard work. 

The bad news for clubs in the second category is that the world has changed. All boys’ clubs are going out of fashion in every section of society. So, rather than looking at women’s rugby players as an extra hassle they could do without as they fight for survival, perhaps it is time to see them as potential game-changers who can inject energy, enthusiasm and ultimately revenue into your organisation. 

It won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight, but the rewards could be huge. 

In the meantime, Scotland face a must-win match on Sunday against Spain. It won’t be easy, with their opponents currently rated two places higher in the world rankings and on a high after a shock 8-7 win over Ireland in their first match of the series.