Girls are continuing to tackle obstacles to being accepted as rugby players, nowhere more so than in the Borders, Roddy Mackenzie reports.
A small, but perhaps not insignificant, development occurred at the Reivers' Celtic League rugby match with Ospreys at Netherdale in Galashiels last month. For the first time, there were ball-girls instead of ball-boys operating at a professional game in the Borders.
Not that the change will shake the established order of Scottish rugby, but it was a sign that the schoolgirls' game is making advances in a traditionally male-dominated sport.
Lesley Robertson, the youth rugby co-ordinator for the Scottish Women's Rugby Union, is based in the Borders and has seen the girls' game gain a foothold over the past five years. Women playing rugby had been dismissed as a joke not so long ago but Mrs Robertson is convinced that attitudes have changed.
"The number of girls playing the game has more than doubled over the past two years," she says.
"Girls' rugby is here to stay. There are more and more wanting to play the game and many are attracted by the rough stuff and the fact it is a contact game. It appeals to the tomboys and there is no fear factor involved for the girls who come along.
"Girls that have maybe not managed to get into hockey or football teams at school come and play rugby and the fun element keeps them coming back.
"Rugby is also a great social game and you find that girls who play in the same team make friends for life."
The Borders is leading the way in the girls' game in Scotland. No fewer than 11 girls of the 20-strong Scotland under-16 squad last season were plucked from the area. It is a sign that the grass-roots policy is bearing fruit. Melrose, Jed-Forest, Hawick, Selkirk and Gala all have thriving under-16 girls' set-ups now.
A Queen of the Borders tournament is played every month, where the emphasis is more on giving players match experience and less on results. It is well supported by the Borders teams and there are moves to involve Northumberland teams, who have a more advanced set-up and have girls playing at under-17 level.
"We go into primary schools initially and get girls involved from P4 upwards and teach them touch rugby," says Mrs Robertson. "The full contact game does not come until secondary school. Ideally, we'd like to be playing 15-a-side but it depends on the numbers that come along and often it can be eight-a-side or 10-a-side. Obviously, you can't play S1s against S6s for safety reasons.
"I'd love to see the day when girls' rugby is on the curriculum at every school in Scotland but I think that's a long way off. Not many male PE teachers are keen on giving the girls' game a chance. I don't think it's anything to do with any fears over the safety element of it, I think it's just a case of it's always been this way, so why change it.
"Hockey is the main school sport for girls in the Borders, although football is now getting closer as they are well organised and have money to spend.
"We don't have any money and rely on the clubs to let us use their facilities. Selkirk, Melrose, Jed-Forest and Hawick all give us them free of charge.
"Players train once or twice a week and we try to get them as many matches as possible. It's difficult to keep their interest if they're just training all the time. So, as well as playing in events in the Borders, we try to travel to other tournaments.
"A lot of the girls also play football, but I don't mind that as it means they are still keeping fit. A lot of people stop playing sport when they leave school and it is difficult to keep girls involved in their teens.
But, in many ways, we are targeting the 17-24 age-group and hopefully they will then be interested for life."
Breaking down barriers in the Borders has not been easy but attitudes have been shifting in recent years. "The clubs have been very helpful and have given us every encouragement," Mrs Robertson says. "Of course, there are some traditionalists who feel rugby is a man's game but, generally, we've received a lot of support.
"When we provided the ball-girls for the Reivers' match, most of the comments were along the lines of 'It's about time.'
The pathways have been constructed so that girls can progress from under-16 level through to development squad and finally to the senior Scotland team, which now has an established international programme. There are 24 girls'
youth teams in Scotland and 23 senior women's teams and there are plans for the SWRU to bring in a full-time development officer, possibly before Christmas.
"My ideal is for every decent-sized town in Scotland to have a women's team," says Mrs Robertson. "I know that won't happen overnight but I'd like to think that in 10 years' time, we'll be looking back and thinking how much we have grown."
After the success and expansion of the Bell Lawrie Scottish Schools Cup for boys, is there now the possibility of adding a girls' competition? Claire Cruikshank, youth development administrator for the SWRU, believes - as does Mrs Robertson - that it is still some way off.
"We're still a few years away from having a schools cup competition but obviously that is something we'd like to see happen in the future," she says.
"It's definitely a sport that is growing. Every month we take calls from at least two or three new clubs who want to start up a girls' section."