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My Rugby Journey: Helen Nelson

Helen Nelson

Not for the first time, this year’s Rugby World Cup will see Helen Nelson and her Scotland teammates make history.

Scotland failed to qualify for the two previous editions of the showpiece event, and you have to go back to 2006 for their most recent encounter against either Australia or New Zealand, with both Southern Hemisphere giants in their pool on this occasion.

Since qualification was secured with a landslide win over Colombia in February, it has been announced that Scotland Women will turn professional after the conclusion of the Rugby World Cup, with at least 30 players set to be offered contracts.

Fly-half Nelson is sure to be one of them having amassed 38 caps since her debut in 2016, while also taking on the mantle as vice-captain during the 2022 TikTok Women’s Six Nations, where a string of stellar performances saw her named in the Team of the Championship.

Ahead of Scotland’s return to the world stage, Nelson said that she could not wish for a better place to be making her Rugby World Cup bow.

“New Zealand has always been on the bucket list,” she explained.

“Hopefully we’ll get some days off to go and travel. I haven’t seen my brother since before Covid, and he’s in Sydney, so he’s going to pop over.

“That will be a very nice reunion, so I’m looking forward to that.”

When the Inverness-born playmaker first started playing rugby for Glencoe Golden Eagles, she never dreamt that she would one day represent her country.

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Though she was not the first in her family to do so, with her auntie, Clare Hoppe, a member of the first-ever Ireland Women’s team whose first international came, coincidentally, against Scotland.

“She was always quite a big sporting influence in my life,” said Nelson.

“I knew that it was possible through her; I knew it was possible to play for your country and that women could play internationally.

“Then later, as she was diagnosed with cancer, just seeing her resilience and determination; nothing was too big.

“She always took everything on with a smile on her face and was always asking about me. That was one thing that stuck with me.

“She just took everything in her stride and saw the positive in everything and I think I’ll always remember that.”

By the time Nelson arrived at Edinburgh University in 2012, rugby had dropped down the pecking order of sports she hoped to play, with football top of the list.

Though one rejection changed all of that, and unbeknown to Nelson at the time, set her on the path to international stardom.

“I didn’t even think about joining the rugby team, it was not really one of my options,” recalled Nelson.

“But I got turned down for the football side and I kept seeing the rugby posters everywhere. So I was like, ‘alright, I’ll go along and try it’, and I just loved it again.

“I first trained on the Monday then played that Wednesday and that was me hooked from there.”

From having not played the sport in years, Nelson was soon playing matches twice a week, lining up for Murrayfield Wanderers on weekends as rugby became an ever-growing part of her life.

“To go from being a fresher who had no idea what I was doing to being captain and president in my final year was a really cool experience. I think I owe a lot to Edinburgh Uni for that,” she added.

Nelson graduated in 2016, the same year she represented her country for the first time.

Though Nelson was used to winning with Edinburgh, it was a very different story at international level, with Scotland then winless in the TikTok Women’s Six Nations since 2010, at which point Nelson was also a member of the Scottish Alpine Ski team.

Nelson and her teammates would then have to wait a further year for a Championship victory, and it arrived in dramatic fashion, with scrum-half Sarah Law kicking a 78th minute penalty to edge Wales 15-14.

Seven of the side that started that day were involved in September’s World Cup warm-up fixture against the USA and Nelson reflects back on that victory as a turning point for the squad.

“It was incredible. I think it just instilled belief in us,” she said.

“Obviously, Scotland Women had been through a time where winning just wasn’t normal. So getting that win, it was like the monkey off the back.

“It was probably the start of where we are now. It’s a lot of the same girls now, we were young then and we’re senior players now, so it was the start of our journey.”

Another defining moment in the history of Scotland Women’s rugby came this year with the news that Scotland would follow England and Wales in becoming professional.

The announcement formed part of a wider four-year strategy to grow the game, with targets set by the Scottish Rugby Union including a top-eight finish at the 2025 World Cup and an attendance of 7,000 at international games by 2026.

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And having witnessed first-hand the exponential growth of the game, Nelson is looking forward to a brighter future for Scotland Women.

“The youngsters that are coming in are so much better,” she added. “Everything is just happening from a younger age, so it’s a really exciting time.

“We’re just going to keep getting better from here. [I’m] really proud to have been at the start of that journey, and hopefully be around for a few years longer to kick on and see what we can do.”

The immediate focus, however, is the World Cup down under, and Nelson admits that it will be an emotional moment when Bryan Easson’s side line up for their opening fixture on 9th October.

“I’m not letting myself think about it too much or get too excited, but it’s going to be incredible,” she said.

“I think this group has grafted for this for a long, long time. Playing New Zealand in New Zealand, in our first World Cup in 12 years, it doesn’t get more special than that.

“I still don’t think it’s fully sunk in.”