One detects a certain amount of modesty when Claire Cruikshank suggests she is not a coach who is driven by “very clear” personal ambitions.
“I haven't a set 'I want to be X coach by this time or I want to coach this national team’,” she told World Rugby.
Cruikshank might not be working towards a pre-determined career plan, but that doesn’t mean she lacks aspirations within the game.
That much is clear when you look at the work she has done as Head of Performance Women’s Rugby at the University of Edinburgh, and more recently as head coach of Sweden women.
Her coaching role at the university, which began on a temporary and voluntary basis in 2011, has since grown into a full-time job overseeing one of the most successful women’s programmes in the UK.
Cruikshank led Edinburgh to British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) Championship final success at Twickenham in 2017, and, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the team were on course to repeat that feat this season.
“I want to be the best coach I can be,” Cruikshank added. “I want to be a coach that people want to come and play for, who’s respected, who’s knowledgeable and who is valued by my players.”
Developing Swedish rugby
Under the Scot, Sweden won one and lost one of their 2019-20 Rugby Europe Women’s Trophy matches. But Cruikshank is adamant that it’s a tournament that in future “I want us to be winning”.
“I want us to get up to the [Rugby Europe Women’s] Championship level and start to bring Sweden rugby back up,” the former Scotland international said.
“Ultimately, the long-term vision and dream would be to qualify for a Rugby World Cup and that's a big, big ask going from where we are at the moment.
“But if you don't have some dreams and ambitions, then there's nothing to make those players train that little bit harder, to pay the money to go to competitions. And I do think it's realistic.”
Cruikshank applied for the Sweden role following a visit to the country to oversee an open training camp last year, after one of her assistants at Edinburgh was forced to pull out at late notice.
It’s a voluntary post, but the 42-year-old has been able to convince an old friend to take on the challenge alongside her.
Tamara Taylor first met Cruikshank when she was studying at Newcastle University and the Scot was enrolled in the same city at Northumbria University.
Taylor, who is England’s second-most capped player, agreed to assist Cruikshank with Sweden during a “chance conversation” and provides a wealth of experience.
“If Tamara and I can't help a union like Sweden, then I also think that's maybe a little bit of a failing on our part,” Cruikshank admitted.
“Hopefully we can go and do something to develop Swedish rugby. Having her involved is great.”
‘They’ve got to want to make sacrifices’
The pair have run into a couple of obstacles since taking on the job, mainly concerning the size of the squad at their disposal and the logistical challenge associated with gathering 28 amateur players in one place for training camps.
“Sweden is a large country, which I probably hadn't really comprehended until I went over and I found out that it was actually quicker for me to get back to Scotland than for some of them to get back to where they lived in Sweden from a training camp or a competition,” Cruikshank explained.
“It's about creating something that the players want to buy into. If they don't enjoy it, they're not going to give it the time. They're not going to pay for it.
“So, it's got to be fun. It's got to be challenging. They’ve got to want to make sacrifices.”
Cruikshank’s work in Edinburgh is proof that she can do just that and build a successful programme in the process.
Having dipped her toe into coaching with her club, Murrayfield Wanderers, while recovering from the ACL injury that ended both her Rugby World Cup 2006 campaign and test career, it was a chance occurrence that hooked her back in.
On the eve of the 2011-12 academic year, the University of Edinburgh Ladies unexpectedly found themselves short of a coach and Cruikshank agreed to step in “for the first semester”.
Fast forward almost nine years and Cruikshank remains as happy as ever in the role. Her only frustration is for the players who committed to the 2019-20 season only to see their BUCS Championship final date at the Ricoh Arena cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It's probably disappointing on three levels. One, the amount of time and effort the players have put in over the last nine months,” she explained.
“Secondly, we probably played our best rugby in the semi-final that we had done all season and we had five weeks before the final.
“So, we were feeling good and, you know, there's a lot of stuff we could develop before the final, which we’d planned to. We think that would have made a big difference.
“And probably the hardest one is for those players who are graduating. So those players who never got that opportunity to play in their last game.
“Had the semi-final been the last game they would at least have that closure of knowing, we lost that game, that’s now the end of my uni career. Whereas to get something taken away from them in the way it has, it's really hard.”
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