My Rugby Journey: Helen Nelson

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When Helen Nelson first picked up a ball at Glencoe Golden Eagles she never dreamt she would one day represent her country.

When Helen Nelson first picked up a ball at Glencoe Golden Eagles she never dreamt she would one day represent her country.

The Inverness-born fly-half was not the first in her family to make it an international, with her auntie, Clare Hoppe, a member of the first-ever Ireland Women’s team whose first international came, coincidentally, against Scotland.

Nelson is set to her 50th Scotland cap when Bryan Easson’s side take on Italy this Saturday and Hoppe, who passed away from cancer a year ago, is bound to be in Nelson’s thoughts when she takes to the field in Edinburgh.

“She was always quite a big sporting influence in my life,” said the 28-year-old.

“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.”

Nelson’s journey to the Test arena has been far from straightforward as she arrived at Edinburgh University in 201 hoping to make it as a footballer.

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.

Nelson reflects on that victory as a turning point for the national side.

“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 in 2022 with the news that Scotland would follow England and Wales in becoming fully 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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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.”