Women’s 6N build up: An insight into Corstorphine “superstars” Alex Stewart and Merryn Gunderson

Gary Heatly

“We want to say a huge congratulations to our superstars Alex Stewart and Merryn Gunderson”…

After the Scotland training squad was named for the upcoming Guinness Women’s Six Nations on February 19, Corstorphine Cougars were, rightly, very proud to see their back-rowers Alex Stewart and Merryn Gunderson included in a batch of seven uncapped players.

Both have been playing well for Edinburgh Rugby recently in the Celtic Challenge, but let’s find out more about their rugby journeys to this point with the Six Nations taking place in March and April.

“I’ve worked with Alex since she was at Liberton Primary School where she impressed myself and her PE Teacher Danny Moir with her sporting abilities, often outperforming the boys,” Eric Jones, the Corstorphine head coach, said.

“Alex then entered into the Liberton High School ‘Performance Pathway’ which had been up and running for a couple of years at that time. This was based around Scottish Rugby’s ‘School of Rugby’ (SoR) programme which had just been launched.

“At the school we knew that we were quite a distance off having the required amount of teams at each age group to be an ‘official’ SoR, so what we did was take the best parts and principles and adapted a version that suited Liberton High School.

“S1 and S2 was all about participation and then, in S3, pupils were able to choose the Rugby Performance Pathway as a subject choice which Alex did and it meant that there was more of a focus on strength & conditioning as well as participation in rugby with ‘education first’ being a main principle of the programme.”

By this time, Stewart had already been part of the Liberton High School/Royal High School under-15 team that had won the Scottish Shield at Scotstoun Stadium.

Going forward, she continued in the Rugby Performance Pathway Programme which was supported by head teacher Stephen Kelly, depute head Dave Russell and head of PE Stuart Robertson and showed the desire to kick on.

“At times I would come into work at 7am and Alex was already on the pitch doing her conditioning sessions before going to school,” Jones, who was then a development officer/coach, explained.

“She was also playing other sports at the time and was always busy, but she had a real drive to keep getting better.

“Alex was part of the East under-18 side and the BT Academy Talent ID programme – as it was then – and during a couple of years spell she was a runner-up in the club Cup final, Schools Cup final and the club Shield final.

“During lockdown we offered 1-2-1 sessions for players when restrictions allowed and Alex booked in for her maximum three sessions a week as well as doing her own conditioning through that period.”

Coming out of lockdown was Stewart’s last year at school and her last under-18 season and this was when Gunderson, who had progressed through the ranks at Forrester, Murrayfield Wanderers and Edinburgh Harlequins, joined Corstorphine.

“Alex had joined Corstorphine Cougars in mid-2021 where she was introduced to senior rugby at 17 and excelled,” Jones said.

“The older players started to realise that there were some focused and talented young players coming through and it was early 2022 when Merryn joined and was moving between front-row and back-row.

“In mid-2022, Alex focused on playing for the University of Edinburgh which left a space in the back-row with Cougars for Merryn to go after which she did.

“It was during this time that Merryn’s performance levels – conditioning, skills, understanding of the game – went on a real upward trajectory in my opinion and her game really developed- building on the fundamentals she had gained at Murrayfield Wanderers.

“She competed in our sevens team which retained the Rugby People Sevens Series title and Merryn definitely got on peoples’ radar during this time.

“Alex returned to Union Park in August 2023 which was also when Merryn enrolled on the Borders College Full Time Level 6 course. Whilst on this course Merryn’s performance, attitude and personality has excelled [Jones is a rugby lecturer on the course].

“I really think that Merryn enrolled at the right time of her rugby journey on this course as it provides her with a tailored strength & conditioning programme, technical detail and video analysis amongst many other things which gives her the platform – along with her ‘no nonsense’ approach to training- to prepare for the next step in her performance development.

“Merryn can come across as really quite at times, but she is totally focused on what she wants to achieve and she is a pleasure to work with.

“Having her and Alex at the same club might have given some people a selection headache, however, whilst they both have similarities – exceptional work rate, aggressive attacking lines, top defensive skills – the slight differences in their game suits Alex playing at seven and Merryn playing at six. This means that with both of them playing, alongside the likes of Emma Turner or Lucy Kidd, it’s a formidable back-row combination at the club.

“Both Alex and Merryn are exceptional players.

“I’m so pleased for them both to get a shot at getting into the Six Nations squad.

“For anyone that has been involved in the girls game in Scotland over the last five years or has followed the club game in the last two years, it’ll is no surprise that these two are achieving great things.

“They are both great people – it’s been a privilege to be part of both their journeys so far and I’m looking forward to hearing and seeing how they get on going forward.”

The Six Nations begins on March 23 when Scotland will be in Cardiff to take on Wales.

Scotland Guinness Women’s Six Nations training squad:

Forwards: Leah Bartlett, Christine Belisle, Sarah Bonar, Elliann Clarke, Lisa Cockburn, Eva Donaldson, Evie Gallagher, Merryn Gunderson, Rachel Malcolm, Elis Martin, Fiona McIntosh, Rachel McLachlan, Louise McMillan, Lana Skeldon, Alex Stewart, Emma Wassell, Molly Wright, Anne Young.

Backs: Cieron Bell, Beth Blacklock, Leia Brebner-Holden, Shona Campbell, Nicole Flynn, Coreen Grant, Caity Mattinson, Mairi McDonald, Francesca McGhie, Rhona Lloyd, Helen Nelson, Emma Orr, Lisa Thomson, Chloe Rollie, Meryl Smith, Meg Varley.

Thanks to N50 Photography for the images of Alex Stewart and Merryn Gunderson playing recently for Edinburgh Rugby

Between January and April 2024, GH Media will be covering all aspects of women’s rugby in Scotland via reports, features and interviews…

Thanks to those who have made this possible and if any companies/individuals are keen to support this work too, please email gary@gh-media.co.uk