Helen Nelson will lead Scotland on the next step of their increasingly impressive journey this weekend as the team makes its HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series debut in Biarritz.
Beaten to core team status by Brazil in Hong Kong in April, Scotland will get the chance to rub shoulders with some of the game’s best in south-west France with matches to come against world champions New Zealand, England and Russia in Pool A.
“This is the biggest world stage we’ve played on so I think the girls are really excited to show what we can do and show that there is a lot of potential [in the squad],” Nelson told World Rugby.
“We’re still a young team so I think there’s a really exciting future ahead for us. It’s a good place to start.”
Captain Nelson has been playing international sevens for less than four years but in that time Scotland has made impressive progress.
It was only in 2016 that Scotland marked their first appearance on the Rugby Europe Women’s Sevens Trophy with a steady third-place finish. A year later, Scotland won the title to earn promotion to the Rugby Europe Women’s Sevens Grand Prix Series in 2018.
Drawing on positives
Nelson led her country to a bronze medal in Kazan last year that secured fourth place on the Grand Prix Series place behind champions Russia, France and Ireland. This earned them a place in Biarritz as the invitational team (as the highest ranked non-core team) and also at the World Rugby Women's Sevens Series qualifier in Hong Kong in April with core team status for 2020 awaiting the winner.
Scotland were making their debut in the qualifier but proved to be the surprise package of the tournament, beating Belgium, Mexico, Japan and Papua New Guinea en route to the final, where Brazil prevailed 28-19 at Hong Kong Stadium.
“It was tough to take that result against Brazil, but I think if we’d said to ourselves before the tournament that we’d be in the final we’d have been happy with that,” admitted Nelson. “So, it’s about taking the positives and not being too disheartened by that loss.”
Indeed, there were a host of positives for the Scotland captain to take from a tournament in which the squad had not expected to be so competitive.
“We kind of went into it with not too much expectation from ourselves or from anyone else, I don’t think, because it was our first time there and other teams had been there a few times,” Nelson added.
“We were in a really nice position and we’d come off the back of quite a tough Six Nations so we were just having fun, really, not putting any pressure on ourselves.
First for Scotland
“And then we beat Japan and Papua New Guinea who have played on the series, so it was an incredible experience for us as a team, dealing with the bigger crowds and knockout rugby, I guess, winner-takes-all kind of tournament. So, it was a really good learning.”
Nelson and her team-mates have not set themselves any targets ahead of the series finale in Biarritz, but they will have to put the lessons learned in Hong Kong into practice if they are to compete in Pool A.
“The girls are really excited,” she said. “I think it’s the first time Scotland sevens have ever played against the Black Ferns so no pressure on us, we’re just going to go have fun and see what happens.
“We played both England and Russia last year in Europe, so know a bit more about them. It’s a bit less intimidating than playing the world champions, so we’ll see how we go.”
Scotland’s rise has been made under head coach Scott Forrest, who is no stranger to international sevens having captained the men’s side in both the World Series and Commonwealth Games and more recently acted as interim head coach for the Scotland men's sevens team in the London and Paris climax of their series.
His advice has been invaluable as the squad has taken each new step. “He’s kind of been there and done that,” Nelson explained.
It may well be Nelson and team-mate Chloe Rollie providing guidance this weekend, however. Both currently ply their trade in France, for Montpellier and Lille respectively, and will have club-mates cheering them on at Stade Aguilera with the domestic sevens championship being played on an adjacent pitch during the weekend.
“It’s been really cool,” Nelson, who helped Montpellier to the French title last month, said of her move to France last year.
“Women’s rugby in France is huge, they’re like celebrities everywhere they go, like Safi [N’Diaye] and the Menager twins [Marine and Romaine].
“It’s been a really good experience. Obviously winning the title, it was a tough final against Stade Toulouse, it was the first time we’d played against them but it’s a really, really good level here. It’s physical, it’s fast but really good.”
Nelson believes her time abroad has helped make her a better player.
“Having to deal with the language barrier, because all the training, all the game is in French. So, having to kind of think on your feet in a game and change a plan not only in your own mind but having to then speak that in French as well, it makes the communication when I come back to Scotland, it makes that a lot easier and you appreciate that sort of thing.
“I’ve really developed as a player I think.”