Gemma Fay understands the hard work, and patience, that is required to turn an under-performing team into contenders on the international stage.

When she made her debut in goal for the Scotland women’s national football team, aged just 16, in a FIFA Women’s World Cup qualifier against the Czech Republic in May 1998, her side were the equivalent of a tier two team in the European game.

Placed into ‘Class B’ of qualifying, the Scots were required to win their group – which they did – to book a play-off tie against Spain that was ultimately lost 7-1 on aggregate.

It was fitting, therefore, that Spain provided the opposition almost two decades later when Fay captained Scotland to their first ever major tournament win at UEFA Women’s Euro 2017 as she won her 203rd and final cap.

This June, Scotland will play Argentina, England and Japan as they make their maiden appearance in the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

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Having played a major role in helping her country’s footballers achieve what had seemed impossible, Fay is determined to use her role as Scottish Rugby’s Head of Women and Girls’ Rugby to produce a similar result.

Developing mindsets

“I’ve been on a similar journey to what rugby is going to have to go on, in football, and I know it can be done,” Fay said.

“We’ve done quite a lot about trying to lay the foundations, getting the philosophy we want to play to.

“Some new personnel [have come] in as well who have helped to shape that and our focus is now qualification for the [Women’s Rugby] World Cup in 2021.

“So, everything we’re doing within the performance department is about focusing players towards that.”

Fay joined Scottish Rugby from sportscotland in November 2017 and admits that the past 17 months have been testing, “but if it’s not challenging, it’s not worth doing”.

“I guess the biggest challenge is you’ve got to gain some sort of credibility. You’re not coming from the sport, so that’s the first thing,” she explained.

“The second thing is you’re trying to develop mindsets, you’re trying to impart a culture and you’re trying to do things which have never been done before and it’s really hard to do things that have never been done before.”

Believing is key

Since Fay arrived at Murrayfield a number of firsts have been ticked off in the women’s game.

In July last year, Scottish Rugby increased its pool of contracted female players to eight with an eye on qualification for Women’s Rugby World Cup 2021 in New Zealand.

Meanwhile, in the shorter format of the game, Scotland made their debut at the World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series qualifier in Hong Kong last month as Europe’s top seeds. The team narrowly missed out on a core team place on the 2020 series after losing the final 28-19 to Brazil.

“The biggest thing, I think, is that belief that because it hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean that we can’t be the first to do it. It’s possible and it’s taking everybody on that journey.

“And in terms of the performance side, the players are with us on that. They just need to believe it because I do believe that we have good players, we’ve got a lot of players that have really got great potential and it’s our job to help them realise that potential.”

Scottish Rugby made a further commitment to do just that at earlier this week when they announced the appointment of former Ireland coach Philip Doyle as the new Scotland women's head coach.

Doyle’s contract runs until the end of the qualifying process for WRWC 2021 and Fay insisted that the Grand Slam-winning coach “has the right experience to be able to take us through this period and compete for a place in the tournament”.

Learning curve

Scotland finished bottom of the 2019 Women’s Six Nations having lost all five of their matches, but Fay remains confident that the team can beat Ireland and Italy to a place in New Zealand.

“Nobody wants to lose games, that’s the first thing, so that’s disappointing,” she said. “However, I think we can take heart from some of our performances within those games.

“I think that we took quite a few injuries during the campaign, before the campaign, there were moments when we could have won, and we should have won, and we didn’t and we’ll learn from that.

“But if we look at success from purely ‘did we win or did we lose’ that’s not going to do us any good so we don’t look at success, at this moment in time, in that.

“Our success will be when the [qualifying] tournament comes from Rugby Europe and then we go there and we do what we need to do. So we’re building towards that.

“That’s when we need to perform and produce the results, so anything else we do in between is all about ‘how can we peak for then?’

Refreshing organisation

“So, if we lose a game but the players have done what we’ve asked them to do and we’re trying something new, I don’t have a problem with that. That’s all part of performance sport.”

In March, Fay was named as one of the 14 successful applicants to World Rugby’s Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship programme in 2019.

She will be mentored by Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle, who she met for the first time in Hong Kong last month, and intends to use it to “open my wings a bit in terms of that leadership journey”.

Fay said that Scottish Rugby was a “refreshing organisation to come into” as a female leader, and praised the work done by CEO Mark Dodson, Chairman Colin Grassie, and Technical Director Stephen Gemmell among others, including outgoing Director of Rugby Scott Johnson and incoming board member Julia Bracewell.

“There’s good people in that organisation and if you’ve got good people around you that want to challenge you and want to make things better then that’s really important,” she explained.

“Everybody involved in Scottish Rugby, and I don’t just mean performance rugby, I mean rugby in general, they want their sport to be better.

“They want more girls to be playing, they want to make changes and if you’ve got those kinds of people involved in the sport then it makes your job that little bit easier.”

Photos: SNS Group/SRU