Maree is not on her Todd in loving rugby!
As restrictions have begun to lift, rugby clubs throughout Scotland are enjoying getting everyone back onto the pitch.
Excitement and enthusiasm has been high and we have seen a surge of applications for the recent Scottish Rugby Kick-start grants.
Return to rugby is at the front of everyone’s minds as we ensure that we use this opportunity to continue to secure a bright future for the game in Scotland.
As a result, Scottish Rugby’s Everyone’s Game campaign will be returning next week as a platform to support club rugby events throughout the coming season and spark even greater involvement in the game.
As a taste of the genuine joy at being back on the rugby field and what is to come, we visited one club last week to see how they are inspiring the community, new and returning, back on the rugby pitch!
It’s a sultry summer Thursday night in the Highlands town of Invergordon, renowned (in pre-Covid days) as a destination for gigantic cruise ships or the decommissioning of oil rigs.
At Ross Sutherland Rugby Club, players young and old, male and female, are arriving, and their attention is firmly on the pitches at the Naval grounds, rather than on any activity in the Cromarty Firth.
They are here for a fun night of mixed touch rugby, though you’d be making a mistake to position it as entirely non-competitive.
“John Gordon, who played lock and scored a try when we won the BT Bowl Final at BT Murrayfield against Wigtownshire in 2018, finished off second best in a challenge with one of the girls last week,” chortled Ross Sutherland president John Scott.
Construction work is still ongoing on a new clubhouse and changing rooms at the Caledonia Regional League Division 2 club, the cost of which has escalated during the pandemic as a result of a hike in the price of materials.
Some £500,000 had already been secured through funding from Scottish Rugby, sportscotland, the Highland LEADER programme which supports rural development projects, FCC Communities Foundation, EB Scotland, Gordon and Ena Baxter Foundation and Hearts & Balls, among others.
Club members have done their bit too, with a variety of fun events and community engagement, including a litter-pick on the A9, during their March into May initiative.
The intention is clear: the clubhouse will not only be a worthy home to mark the ambition of Ross Sutherland to grow the game, especially for girls and women, throughout their vast catchment area, one sixth of the landmass of Scotland.It will also be a hub for the entire community around Invergordon, irrespective of sport or pastime.
That community is delighted that rugby, after a 15-month hiatus, is back and, whether it’s the seasoned stalwarts or fresh-faced newcomers, there is the proverbial spring in the step.
The players include Alan McLean, in his 60s, a past President of the club, who retired from refereeing to resume playing!
Then there’s Morven Thomson, a stand-off from Golspie High School, who has already won selection for the Caley U16 girls’ squad.
Soon, two physiotherapists, a couple from Chile, who came to work in the NHS at the Lawson Memorial Hospital in Golspie, bound forward to join the action.
They are greeted by 19-year-old stand-off Dan Corr, who is leading Ross Sutherland’s engagement at the Cashback School of Rugby at Alness Academy, some four miles away.
Dan has been in post since January, working in both the 350-pupil secondary school and its feeder primaries at Coulhill and Obsdale.
“It’s not just about coaching them to play rugby. We want to show them they are really welcome here at Ross Sutherland and they are excited about our sport.” Dan Corr
President John Scott’s vision extends to inspiring local youth to rugby’s values, believing that can create employment opportunities with club sponsors.
Talk about a stimulating atmosphere. There are more than 80 folks getting ready for the touch rugby.
Teenage prop forward, Gregor Todd is one of them.He is being assessed for his National 5 PE by his head teacher at Dingwall Academy . . . but he’s still keen to emphasise that he’s having a fun night and just about makes a clean break for a try as his teacher scribbles in his notepad.
Gregor’s mum is there too.She’s 48, 5ft 2ins and has played on the wing since she fell in love with the game in the mid-1990s when women’s rugby in Scotland was very much a fledgling sport.
Gregor seems serious about his propping.When his mum was followed on Twitter by Petrus du Plessis during his time at Glasgow Warriors, he was proud as punch and knew all about the South African’s scrummaging credentials.
“Gregor’s mum”, by the way, is none other than Scotland’s Sports Minister, Maree Todd, who also has public health and women’s health in her portfolio.
She is the local MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross and you will find no greater champion for participation in sport or the outdoors.
President John Scott noted: “From the club’s point of view, what we have said to Maree is that if she wants to come and blow off steam at touch that’s fine with us. She is most welcome, just like everyone.”
Family friends in Ullapool, where she was raised, fuelled Maree Todd’s love for rugby but she cites the influence of the late great TV commentator, Bill McLaren, as the deciding factor.
“Bill was so enthusiastic, and he was almost poetic in his descriptions.But I also remember that he was very fair.He would never overtly criticise a player and I think that supportive element is very important in encouraging people to play sport,” she said.
“What’s not to like about this here tonight? It’s a really diverse group.We are having absolutely brilliant fun.
“There are lots of players new to rugby but it’s all very sociable and enjoyable.And they are a really supportive crowd - just exactly what’s needed in this recovery phase from Covid.”
There are rolling substitutions, so if players feel they could do with a break – understandable on a warm night – then no problem.
Over the last few months, Maree Todd has joined a walking group in Tongue and a wild-swimming group in Lochinver. She is also a staunch advocate of completing the Daily Mile.
“It’s wonderful to see the positive impact that getting outdoors and being in nature can have on people’s health. I know it’s been a Godsend for me,” she declared.
“Imagine if that could be the legacy of the pandemic – what kind of country could we become?”
While studying to become a mental health pharmacist in the 1990s, Maree Todd played rugby at Inverness Craig Dunain and fondly recalled coach trips to fulfil matches throughout the country.
Her husband, John, also played as a lock forward, and daughter Rowan is playing as a centre/wing while she studies at university in Glasgow.
Maree Todd added: “One of the great things about rugby is that it truly is a sport for all shapes and sizes and that very much applies to women’s rugby.
“Women are bombarded by images of ‘perfect bodies’ – some of which are photo-shopped – so I think involvement in a sport like rugby can be a real confidence booster as you learn that there is room in the team for everybody, regardless of their body shape.
“Sport really does have the power to bring people together, often from very diverse backgrounds.”
The Minister cited the Scottish Parliament rugby team at Holyrood, which has enjoyed cross party representation, as an example.
Soon, John Mann, the Ross Sutherland development officer, who leads a network of coaches, delivering in seven secondary schools and 41 primary schools within their catchment area – “the same size as Montenegro!” – blows the whistle and leaves the happy players with a final thought.
“Next week, can each of you bring four friends along?”
Animated discussions started immediately as the challenge was accepted.
And for the Sports Minister?
“I’ll be in Parliament next week, but my daughter will be back home, so she’ll be coming along.It’s great fun and everyone is welcome.”
Everyone’s Game will be back next week! Keep an eye on our social channels and www.scottishrugby.org.uk to see how you can get involved.
Photo credit: With thanks to Peter Carson