No longer the bastion of men, rugby now has a strong female branch in Scotland and is working towards fielding a schoolgirls' team. Roddy Mackenzie reports
Scotland kicks off its Six Nations Rugby Championship bid in Paris on Sunday. But the days of the game being one of the last bastions of male sport have disappeared.
Indeed, Scotland's women's team will kick off what can be described as the "fairer" Six Nations Championship when it faces France tomorrow, also in Paris.
It is almost eight years since Scotland first fielded a team at international level, although a Scotland Select team had played against representative teams in England.
The women's game started in the universities and now there is an established international team, ranked fourth in Europe behind Spain, France and England, but there is also a Scotland "A" team.
Now the groundwork is being put in place and the day Scotland will be able to field a schoolgirls' team is not far off. It is expected to come within three years. England already has a schoolgirls' team and Wales and Ireland are believed to be considering it.
The Scottish Women's Rugby Union (SWRU) held a development day at Murrayfield last Sunday and more than 100 schoolgirls attended. In addition to coaching, the girls met the Scotland women's team as they finalised their preparations for the game against France.
There may be an image problem with girls' rugby for some but the SWRU believes that they are turning people's attitudes. Canadian Barbara Wilson has recently been appointed full-time administration manager for the SWRU and this week the governing body advertised for its first full-time development officer, whose remit will be to get schoolgirls playing the game to a decent standard.
"There are 11 under-16 teams affiliated to the SWRU, from towns such as Caithness and Kelso as well as Glasgow and Edinburgh," points out Barbara Wilson.
"The game is played in pockets throughout the country, and part of the reason for having the development day was to judge the interest. The women's game has come on in leaps and bounds in the last 10 years in Scotland and there are many talented young players coming through.
"Some teams are affiliated to traditional clubs but others have formed themselves and, although there is no competitive league set-up, we play tournaments atunder-16 level. We had one in Coatbridge in November, another in Nairn in September, and we're hoping to have one in February.
"We also want to establish teams so that girls know where to go if they are interested in taking up the game. It may be that four or five girls are interested in playing in a particular school but it is not enough to make up a team. We want them to be able to go to a team nearby, so that they can play the game and we do not lose them."
As in football, girls and boys can play together at primary-school level but then the girls must go their own way. The under-16 game is not full-contact and is more a progression from the Tag Rugby played at primary level. But any under-16 team that is formed would be an important stepping-stone to the "A" team and then the full international side.
There is no chance of a 16-year-old schoolgirl, however talented, representing Scotland at full international, as the International Rugby Board (IRB) forbids any player under the age of 18 - boy or girl - playing international rugby. Similarly, no player can play in the front row until he or she is 19.
There are university students in both teams and the SWRU is keen to facilitate the step up from playing for a club team at under-16 level to representative level.
The SWRU held a conference at Murrayfield last weekend to coincide with the development camp and issues such as grass roots, competition, coaching and club structures were on the agenda.
Now that the SWRU is housed alongside the Scottish Rugby Union (SRU), it is keen to tap into the expertise on offer.
Barbara Wilson, who believes the Scottish women's game is now on a similar footing to the game in her native Canada, understands that it is still seen as a minority sport in this country.
"It is still hard to get press coverage when men's soccer and rugby get so much, but a lot of people have an impression of women's rugby without having seen it being played," she says.
"We have a lot of resources within the SRU we can now use and we can tap into their press and marketing departments.
"The game is getting stronger in Scotland and having a development officer for the women's game will help. We have already been able to build on the work done by the SRU development officers."
Contact Barbara Wilson, SWRU, tel 0131 346 5163