Nelson: Spain test is start of Rugby World Cup countdown

Scotland, captained for the first time by Helen Nelson, begin a massive year with a challenging test away to Spain in Almeria on Sunday.

As a former Alpine skier, Helen Nelson is used to negotiating twists and turns and this year is sure to have plenty as her Scotland team build towards September’s European Rugby World Cup 2021 qualification tournament.

The slaloming centre, from Glencoe, captains Scotland for the first time in Sunday’s test against Spain and will be one of the beating hearts of her country’s Women’s Six Nations campaign which begins away to Ireland on 2 February.

Those six matches will give new head coach Philip Doyle a yardstick to measure his team’s progress since he took over from Shade Munro back in August, before they embark on the even bigger challenge of making it to New Zealand 2021.

“For us, we are very aware that we’re on this journey. Philip only came in in the summer and he said to us that autumn is the most important thing for us, that’s what all this preparation is for," said Nelson.

Close encounters

With just two places between the teams in the World Rugby Women’s Rankings (Spain are ninth and Scotland 11th), Sunday’s encounter promises to be every bit as tight as the last three meetings, all won by Las Leonas by a single score.

“Spain are a team we’ve played at this time of year for the past few years and it’s always a really good test because we’re so close in the world rankings and also because of the way they play," added the experienced 15s and sevens international.

“They are really skilful in the backs because a lot of their sevens girls play 15s as well, and they like to move the ball around, and they challenge you defensively.

“I think we’re quite evenly matched, it’s always a good fixture and with Spain being involved in the World Cup qualification process as well, it’ll be good preparation for then.”

Spain have to win the Rugby Europe Women’s Championship to reach the final stage of Europe's RWC 2021 qualification, but it would be a major shock if they didn’t join Scotland, Italy and Ireland to battle it out for one direct place and one in the repechage.

Italy are currently the top-ranked of the four teams in seventh with Ireland sitting between Spain and Scotland in 10th.

Ireland game "significant"

For Ireland, last year’s Women’s Six Nations campaign was one to forget.

They suffered a first-ever loss to Italy in the competition and managed just one win and four defeats, as they finished fifth, above wooden spoon winners Scotland.

When Doyle was in charge before his switch of allegiance to Scotland, Ireland won an historic Grand Slam in 2013 and a second Six Nations title in 2015.

Nelson recognises the trip to Donnybrook in Dublin is “significant” on a number of levels as Scotland look to continue their forward progression.

“We had a really good summer tour to South Africa and made big improvements under our new coach, then at the beginning of the autumn, we didn’t show up against Wales but bounced back with a much better performance against Japan even though we lost. I was really proud of the girls with the way we turned it around," admitted Nelson.

“Like Spain, Ireland are involved in the qualification process for the World Cup, so it’s a significant game because of that, and it’ll also be quite special for Philip because it’s his first Six Nations games for us, against his former team.

“We want to be getting the wins obviously, but the end goal is World Cup qualification.”

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