A FUNDING package which will compensate 36 of the nation’s top women players for the time they take away from work and study during the next five months – as they prepare and then compete in the World Cup in New Zealand during October and November – was announced by Scottish Rugby yesterday. 

The programme of payments will take Scottish Rugby’s investment in the Scottish Women squad beyond £500,000 for 2022. While any meaningful expenditure directed at this branch of the game is welcome, questions are bound to be asked about whether this specific package goes far enough? 

Murrayfield has been under pressure to provide the nation’s top women players with central contracts since the national side secured qualification to its first World Cup in 12 years by beating Colombia in a play-off match in February. 

As it stands, Scotland is the only Six Nations side that doesn’t currently have or is not in the process of introducing central contacts for women players. 

However, Director of Performance Rugby Jim Mallinder stressed that this is a horses for courses scenario and argued that the approach being adopted by Scotland is better suited to supporting current players – many of whom have successful careers away from the game – in the short term. He also promised that a more comprehensive strategy for professionalising the top of the women’s game will be announced soon.

“What we’re doing now is catering for their careers, we’re putting a package in place to make sure they can train full-time,” he said. “After the World Cup we’ll be looking at a different financial model. We’ll be looking at rewarding performance. 

“In my view this isn't new, it’s a succession to what’s happened this year.  It’s looking, communicating with the players, and asking what fits their individual situation at this time.  

“We’ve got lecturers, we’ve got accountants, students, a whole range,” he continued. “They are not full-time professional players so they’re juggling their work lives and their rugby playing. They’re going to their employers and saying: ‘I want to prepare properly and professionally so I want to take time off’. We are financing that time off.” 

Team captain Rachel Malcolm added that she is delighted with the deal. “I think it’s absolutely the right package for us,” she said. “What’s been really impressive for us as players is that all of us have been listened to individually and it’s been updated as a result.” 

“For us as players, all we want is the best opportunity to go and compete at the World Cup. In our opinion, what Scottish Rugby have done with this statement of intent is exactly what we want, and we’re delighted with the support we have.” 

One of the major challenges facing Scottish Rugby as it looks to take the next step beyond this bridging measure is finding a structure for the women’s game to support the progress of newly professionalised players. 

To that end, Gemma Fay – the former Scotland goalkeeper who is now Scottish Rugby’s Head of Women and Girls Strategy – is set to announce a new plan on Thursday. 

“We’ve got a club system – a community club game – and we’ve got our international game, and nothing in between,” acknowledged Mallinder. “We’ve got lots of players playing in England and we’re not going to say, ‘all you players playing in England, come up here’. But what we do need is something in the middle so we can hopefully encourage some of the girls to come up and play and also for more of our Scotland players to play in.” 

Asked if entering a team into the part-time professional Alliance Premier 15s in England is an option, he replied: “I don’t want to say too much. The chat today is what we’re doing up to the World Cup. 

“To be honest, we don’t know exactly what we’re going to do because we haven’t anything in place at the moment. We are speaking to a lot of different people. We can’t just set it up ourselves. We need input from others.” 

Despite a Six Nations whitewash, head coach Bryan Easson insisted that the team returned to training yesterday feeling energised by the experience, ahead of starting an 11-week block of preparation leading up to the biggest rugby adventure of their careers to date. 

“When you look at the time we had together going into the Six Nations it was pretty much two years, and our goal through that time was to qualify for the World Cup, which we did,” he reasoned. “Once that goal had been reached, there was a conscious decision to grow the group out for the World Cup and we capped 16 players.  

“We performed well at times [during the Six Nations], and disappointingly other times. But with the three bonus points we picked up away from home, we were one phase away against Wales, one phase away against Ireland, and a couple of phases against Italy. So, we were very close to three away wins which has never ever happened. 

"For that reason, we don’t look at it in a painful way, we look at it in terms of how much we learned.   We’ve taken a lot from that whole two-year campaign, and now we’re pushing onto the World Cup.”