Scotstoun Stadium will host a momentous match on Sunday as The Thistles, representing Scotland, kick off the inaugural Celtic Challenge competition against the Welsh Development XV.
The three-team tournament, which also features the Combined Provinces XV from Ireland, will run until 25 February and aims to bridge the gap between the domestic and international women’s games in the three Celtic nations.
Initially running as a pilot, the Celtic Challenge is being financially supported by World Rugby as it continues its commitment to advancing the competitiveness of the elite women’s game.
Earlier this week, The Thistles and Welsh Development XV confirmed their squads and coaching staff for the tournament.
Former Sweden head coach Claire Cruikshank will take charge of The Thistles, having concluded her time on the Rugby World Cup 2021 Coaching Internship Programme with Scotland.
“The timing was perfect,” Cruikshank told World Rugby. “I'd already stepped down from Sweden, so I had a little bit more free time.
“Look, it's a great opportunity. I enjoyed my time with Scotland at the World Cup, so it was kind of a logical next step to continue being involved with the Scottish set-up and with some of the young, exciting players coming through.”
Cruikshank boasts an impressive coaching CV that includes more than a decade overseeing the women’s programme at the University of Edinburgh and promotion to the Rugby Europe Women’s Championship with Sweden.
However, she does not believe she would have been offered the opportunity with The Thistles had it not been for the RWC 2021 Coaching Internship Programme.
“I actually said that to Carol Isherwood, who runs the programme,” Cruikshank said.
“It gave me the coach confidence, it gave me belief in myself, but it also gave me a little bit of visibility within the national governing body. I think it's been invaluable for me.
“It was brilliant seeing things from a different perspective of being inside the tent rather than outside the tent.
“You learn a lot and see the level of detail that goes into it, the time spent, and even just how to manage a squad through a World Cup campaign, which can be quite demanding physically and mentally.”
Cruikshank has picked a squad for the tournament that includes a mix of youth and experience.
Six of the 37 players selected for The Thistles’ inaugural Celtic Challenge campaign were part of Scotland’s RWC 2021 squad, while she has worked with others at the University of Edinburgh.
“There are some players in there who have played for Scotland and were lucky enough to go to the World Cup, so how we can use their experience to pass that to this young crop of players will be really important for us in this Celtic Challenge,” she said.
“The whole group is really motivated, which is brilliant to see, there's competition and we've got a large training squad.
“Megan [Gaffney], Emma Orr, who both managed to play at the World Cup, Ellian Clarke, Meryl Smith, there's a whole host of names and hopefully [they can pass on] their experience in terms of what does it take to get to that next level.
“For them as well, playing in this environment will hopefully put them in the shop window for the Six Nations.”
“It’s all about development”
Welsh Development XV head coach Mike Hill named a 42-player squad for the Celtic Challenge on Wednesday, which included five capped internationals.
The group spent the holiday period training at the Welsh National Centre of Excellence in Neath and Hill – who is assisted by WRU Lead Female Age Grade Coach Liza Burgess and Rhys Pritchard – cannot wait for the tournament to get underway.
“We’ve been really impressed as coaches and the players have really bought into what we’re trying to do.
“There has been huge improvement in a short space of time and given the difference in age and experience across the squad, the players have made a real effort to gel and get to know each other,” he said.
“The programme is already paying dividends in terms of talent identification and allowing players to develop within a performance environment.
“There are certainly a number of girls who could well step up to the next level of rugby from this group.
“The matches will provide invaluable experience in terms of preparation, travelling as a group and performing against teams from other nations. There will be no pressure on the girls for results at this stage.
“It’s all about development and asking the players to show us what they can do with a smile on their face. Hopefully then, some good performances will follow, results too but that’s certainly not the key factor this season.”
World Rugby Director of Women’s Rugby Sally Horrox said: “With World Rugby committed to advancing the competitiveness of the elite women’s game, the international federation is financially supporting the Celtic Challenge pilot in 2023 and is in productive discussions with the IRFU, SRU and WRU on a long-term vision for the competition."