Thistles: “These players are the future of Scottish rugby – we couldn’t have asked for more from them”

By Gary Heatly

Thistles head coach Claire Cruikshank is excited to see how the Scottish players who have been involved in the inaugural Celtic Challenge progress moving forward.

On Saturday at the DAM Health Stadium in Edinburgh the Thistles completed their four-match programme with a 33-26 loss to competition winners the Combined Provinces XV.

The Celtic Challenge has given Scottish Rugby and their counterparts in Ireland and Wales the chance to bridge the gap between club rugby and the international game.

Certainly some of the Scottish players performances in recent weeks will have given national team head coach Bryan Easson food for thought ahead of naming his TikTok Women’s Six Nations squad next month – and that can only be a good thing.

The Irish Combined Provinces XV won all four games they played, the Thistles won one and so did the Welsh Development XV.

“I am proud of the growth of the group from five or six weeks ago and I was proud of the performance in this last game because when we were over in Ireland we probably got a bit of a shock and a bit of a lesson [in a 45-12 loss earlier this month], but in this game we responded, we couldn’t have asked for more from the girls,” Cruikshank, who has been assisted by Chris Laidlaw and Stuart Corsar during the programme, said.

“We said to the girls all through this programme, be brave and try things and some of our tries in this final game showed that, for example great hands and then finish for Elliann Clarke’s try and also Francesca McGhie’s try.

“I have loved being part of this programme. It is easy as a coach when you come in and find a group of players who just want to learn and want to get better. The players have also pushed each other, so that made it easy for us as coaches and I think the players have shown great growth.

“This programme is about growth and development and we have been really buoyed by the youngsters involved – these players are the future of Scottish rugby.

“There’s definitely a number of future Scotland caps who have been involved with the Thistles this year.”

The visitors took the lead after five minutes when centre Aoife Wafer – from what looked like a forward inside pass – went over for a try. Stand-off Dannah O’Brien converted.

In the 12th minute the Thistles did well to stop winger Tash Behan going over for a try and, then, fast breaks from full-back Roma Fraser and centre Shona Campbell got the home crowd excited.

Unfortunately, it was the Combined Provinces who went over next for their second try through hooker Deirbhile Nic a Bhaird. It was converted for 14-0.

The Thistles first points of the day came in the 20th minute when No.8 Emma Turner fed skipper Meryl Smith and the centre went over for a try. She converted it too for 14-7.

In the 29th minute the impressive Fraser picked up a loose ball in her own half and burst away. She was caught, but Smith had a good run a couple of phases later and the Thistles had their tails up.

And three minutes later they scored a brilliant try.

Replacement hooker Nikki Simpson – on earlier for Elis Martin – picked up a loose ball in her own half, launched an attack and exchanged passes with second-row Eva Donaldson.

The ball then found its way to tighthead prop Elliann Clarke who showed a great turn of pace to go over. It was unconverted, but it was 14-12.

That was the way it stayed until half-time.

In the 52nd minute, Scotland scored their third try – and it was another cracker.

A cross field kick by Smith was picked up on the bounce by Campbell and the Great Britain Sevens player set winger Francesca McGhie off. She showed great pace down the left wing to score. Smith converted and it was 19-14.

Four minutes later the Combined Provinces were back in front when centre Enya Breen went over from short range. O’Brien converted and it was 21-19 to the visitors.

With nine minutes to go, the Irish side gave themselves breathing space thanks to a penalty try.

As their player looked to give a scoring pass, McGhie knocked on. The officiating team deemed it deliberate and, with a seven pointer given and a yellow card handed out, it was 28-19.

They added a fifth try with four minutes to go, Breen the scorer of an unconverted effort to make it 33-19.

The Thistles were not done yet though and teenager Lucy MacRae showed her up-and-coming talent by nearly scoring a try at the death, but forcing the Irish side to concede a penalty try to finish things at 33-26.

Thistles squad for the final match: Roma Fraser (Cartha Queens Park); Sky Phimister (Stirling County), Shona Cambpell (Great Britain Sevens), Meryl Smith (University of Edinburgh, C), Francesca McGhie (Watsonians); Ceitidh Ainsworth (Stirling County), Rhea Clarke (University of Edinburgh); Panashe Muzambe (Exeter Chiefs), Elis Martin (DMP Sharks), Elliann Clarke (University of Edinburgh), Eva Donaldson (University of Edinburgh), Natasha Logan (University of Edinburgh), Erinn Foley (Hillhead Jordanhill), Alex Stewart (University of Edinburgh), Emma Turner (Corstorphine Cougars). Subs: Nikki Simpson (Garioch), Poppy Fletcher (Heriot’s), Lindsay McDiarmid (Garioch), Freya Walker (Watsonians), Aila Ronald (University of Edinburgh), Mairi McDonald (Exeter Chiefs), Carla McDonald (Hillhead Jordanhill), Lucy MacRae (Stirling County).

Keep an eye out for lots of Scottish women’s rugby content on this site over the next few months…

Thanks to Rugby People for the photos featured here, you can also watch video highlights here