Community, equality, hard work – this is how to win

by | 16 May 2022

On Saturday the Biggar Ladies rugby team won at Murrayfield. Everything about this rise of this amazing team has lessons Scotland should learn

You may note that I am not exactly filled with the joys of spring just now, so I will certainly jump on anything I can find to write about which is positive. And so I turn again to one of the few things which has brought me outright joy in the last year – Women’s Rugby.

I write this with the unmissable remains of a day-two hangover because Biggar Ladies went to Murrayfield on Saturday to play in the national final of the plate – and they beat an excellent Ayr side to lift it. Biggar took through three big buses of supporters and loads of others made their own way there. The whole club was just ecstatic about it all and the night descended into chaos. (Honestly, that was already the case on the bus on the way back.)

While this is really just a chance for me to write something positive for a change and to brag about our amazing team (of whom I’m so proud, not least my partner who at 45-years-old ran on to the Murrayfield pitch in a cup final), there is so much more I draw from this.

Because why is this happening? Most of this team is under 23. It came out of an amazing under 16s and under 18s set-up from a few years ago. Even given Biggar’s wider catchment area we have a remarkable record on women’s rugby for our size. Our under 14s (my daughter plays) are dominant, our under 16s are really dominant and while our under 18s have had a harder time of it that is largely because that cohort lost two full years to Covid.

There is nothing exceptional about Biggar – perhaps barring two things. The first is that we have an wonderfully strong community here. These aren’t only players playing for a team, most of them are friends who grew up together playing for each other.

When Biggar gets to a final of anything, our club community kicks in – we always take big numbers to games. We’re very proud of all our players. Biggar is a club stronger than its demographics suggest it should be because Biggar is a community stronger than so many communities.

This is the first point I am desperate to get across. When I go on about why I am so unhappy with the degree of centralisation in Scotland it is not because centralisation is inherently bad all the time – some things work best in critical mass at a national level (like the National Grid or a welfare system).

But mostly centralisation just takes power out of the hands of many people and gives it to a few people. And yet among those many people who have been disempowered are people with ideas and energy who make things happen.

Policy in Scotland is convinced that we don’t need to bother with the foundations if we can just work out who is going to win anyway and back them instead

It is the drive of individuals at the club that has made this happen. Three or four years ago when the current women’s set-up in Biggar was really emerging, the male-dominated committee perhaps took a little while to realise this was becoming something more than just a social affair.

It took drive and initiative. It took the women getting together and sending a delegation to ask why they didn’t get the water heated for a shower on their training night when the men did at theirs. It took them explaining that second-hand men’s strips didn’t fit them well. And it took the men to listen – but they did.

So before Saturday the women went to get fitted. They’d had their own bespoke, sponsored strips for a while but now the club was buying them outfits to travel to the game in and outfits to change into afterwards. Everyone is behind them. It took drive and determination to make this happen and that is drained and weakened by the bureaucracy and risk-averse of centralisation.

The change in attitude in the club is amazing. When Biggar won the semifinal a lot of the ‘old school’ men of the club were down to watch and they were every bit as excited to organise supporters busses and get the town to Murrayfield as I was (who have been watching this team for years now).

Doing things for yourself makes you value them. It makes you more confident about trying new things, about making changes, doing things differently. People not used to power want to use it when given it in a way people who are used to power don’t. We punch above our weight because we can.

But there is (I think) another reason this is happening in Biggar. A number of years ago the club kind of rebranded with a motto – ‘one club, one family’. It made a mission statement which made it clear that this club was always going to prioritise the interests of everyone at the club, not just a small elite.

We have a booming mini section in which boys and girls play as equals. I know a number of the boys who are now in S1 (at which the game streams into single-sex streams) and they were pissed off at losing some of their best players who were girls. There were lots of the younger girls at Murrayfield with us, and a good number of younger boys.

And that feeds through. By taking the long approach and saying ‘first, we be a club, a family, and from there, people will grow and become better’, we end up with squads which are way better than a small town of our size ought to be able to produce. We produce Scotland players precisely because we’re not trying to.

We produce Scotland players precisely because we’re not trying to

That is my other lesson. Policy in Scotland is convinced that we don’t need to bother with the foundations if we can just work out who is going to win anyway and back them instead. We all obsess about elite tennis academies, not getting ordinary kids to play tennis. We lust after the big blue-chip companies, begging them to set up here, and we neglect our own medium-sized business base.

We are a nation where public policy is always on the lookout for a shortcut, a cheat code. ‘Get that ferry launched according to my timetable and paint the windows on if you have to.’ We don’t build foundations, we massage indicators and put press releases out about it.

Everything but everything of my year following Biggar Ladies has been an outright joy, but perhaps nothing more than seeing and understanding how this team dragged itself up, created its own space in the club – and won everyone over on the way. It has absolutely inspired me again.

If only I could persuade more people that this is what Scotland is capable of if we can rest it from the cold, dead grip of centralised bureaucracies and a shoddy, short-termist attitude, I swear we could start to turn the country round tomorrow.

If only I could capture and bottle the sheer ecstatic joy of that bus on the way home, primary school kids and drunken adults singing the praises of our all-conquering women and the story that got us there I think I really could persuade them.

Change doesn’t come because some self-important dignitary makes a speech about how important they are. Change comes like this, from people who want to do something and manage to overcome all the barriers Scotland throws in their way and get it done.

So Biggar Ladies – you are fucking superstars and I can’t wait until next year. You’ve been such a bright spot in a year more characterised by gloom than sunshine. Thank you so much. Elite Scotland – get a grip, trust your people and just let go for once. You don’t need to control us.

And to my kids, thanks for forcing me to get out of that carnage at 9PM on Saturday night, preventing this damnable, worth-every-twinge-of-nausea-for-the-best-ever-day hangover from getting any worse than it did.

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