APPROACHING the final two games in the TikTok Women’s Six Nations, it is clear that the competition is now in two divisions, England and France out in front and the other four countries playing catch-up.

The luck of the draw now means that Scotland’s women will finish with two away games, and realistically they must beat Italy a week on Saturday to avoid the Wooden Spoon as I cannot see them beating Ireland in Belfast in the final round of fixtures on Saturday, April 30. I would be delighted to be proved wrong, but at the moment I would happily accept a win over Italy and worry about the Ireland game later.

You will recall that the Rugby World Cup for women, as it must now be called, was postponed for a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic and will now take place in New Zealand in October and November. Our women will be in a group with reigning world champions New Zealand, an Australia side that is currently ranked fifth in the world, and ninth-ranked Wales who are narrowly ahead of Scotland in the tenth-ranked position. Incidentally, Italy are currently ranked ahead of us in eighth and on that basis they will certainly be no pushovers in the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi in Parma on April 23.

The year’s delay for the World Cup has helped Scotland improve as a squad, and head coach Bryan Easson has led them to the first and most important achievement which was to qualify for the trip to New Zealand. That memorable victory over Colombia in February came after Hong Kong and Samoa withdrew citing Covid problems, but I have no doubt Scotland would have qualified even if the two nations had turned up.

To me this year’s Six Nations was all about preparing for New Zealand, and even during the hammering by England in the first round of fixtures, there were slight signs that Scotland are coming together well with less than six months to the opening match against Wales in Whangarei on October 9.

That’s why the performance against Wales was so important. Yes I know we eventually lost, but the Scots dominated the first half and were still three tries to one up after 45 minutes. I felt Leah Bartlett’s yellow card was harsh and you cannot blame Wales for the way they took advantage of her absence. The fact is that though Wales upped their game, played very physically and got their 24-19 lead, Scotland were nevertheless still in the game as the clock wound down.

It was an old Scottish story of mistakes being made and failure to close out a game by taking chances. I might just as easily be writing about our men’s team…

Yet there were more good signs, not the least of which was the defensive effort all round. There was genuine hope of a good performance against France at Scotstoun at the weekend, but the ‘real’ France turned up in the first half and were worthy of their four-try lead at half time. The early opening try by Laure Sansus was a piece of rugby genius and though Scotland were on the back foot for much of the rest of the half, there were some indications that they could perhaps make an impact in the second half.

They duly did, only for tremendous French defence to keep them out. Chloe Rollie’s late try was seen in some quarters as a consolation score, but I saw it as a just reward for another spirited team effort in which Scotland 'won' the second half.

The truth is that Scotland’s women’s squad are not the largest or fastest around, but if heart and soul were ever judged on a points basis then the Scots would be up with the best. The technical side of their game is improving, as is their teamwork, and I think that proves a contention of mine – that if the national women’s squad could get much more time together then they would make progress quite quickly.

England and France have a huge advantage in resources and have plenty full-time players, while Wales and Ireland are developing their squads with hard cash available. Scotland’s 35 members of the international squad are said to be content with their lot, and I am aware that the SRU in cooperation with employers are going to make sure that there will be plenty preparation time for the World Cup – the tournament by which all nations must be judged.

It's taken years for Scotland’s men’s squad to gain the strength in depth that we now see, and while I would love to see it, I don’t think the women’s squad can suddenly just appear as the finished article. I am sure that building a successful women’s squad is a long-term project but at least there are signs the coaches and players are up for doing so.