McGhie blown away by 'surreal' year

Francesca McGhie
There are good years and then there are great years...

The year 2023 will always have a special place in Francesca McGhie’s heart because it was the one where she bust into the Scotland set-up and took the world of women’s rugby by storm.

In the calendar year the now 20-year-old, who was 19 when she made her Scotland debut in March, played in nine Test matches, winning six of them and scoring three tries in the process.

She also earned a move to English PWR club Leicester Tigers, lifted the WXV 2 trophy and was nominated for World Rugby’s Women’s 15s Breakthrough Player of the Year Award.

“The last 12 months and what has happened has certainly been a surprise, I wouldn’t have believed all of this would have gone on,” she admitted.

“Everything came so fast and kind of happened all at once, I have just tried to take it all in and enjoy it. Around this time 12 months ago I was working at Loretto School and playing for Watsonians in the Scottish Premiership and the Thistles in the Celtic Challenge, so to have now played nine matches for Scotland and have signed for Leicester Tigers still seems surreal.

“It has definitely been a different year than I was expecting, but I have loved every minute of it.”

After impressive performances in late 2022 and early 2023 for Watsonians and the Thistles, Francesca, a former dancer, was called up to the wider Scotland training group ahead of the Six Nations - and things skyrocketed from there.

She was handed a starting berth for the opening match with World Cup finalists England in Newcastle in late March and although the visitors lost 58-7, it was a landmark day in her rugby journey.

“It was obviously a tough match to have first up in my international career, but I think it was a good thing for me to come up against some of the best players because it showed me what rugby at that level is all about,” the East Lothian native said.

“Although we lost I took a lot from the experience and it is one that I won’t forget.

“That game prepared for the next few matches in the Six Nations and we lost to Wales and France in weeks two and three, but we knew we were not far away and the squad always had belief in ourselves that we could turn things around and felt that a win was just around the corner.

By the time we were going into the Italy game the girls had been on a 12-game losing streak while I had lost on my first three caps, but the confidence was there.”

On April 22, Francesca and co lit up the DAM Health Stadium in Edinburgh - now Hive Stadium - to secure a 29-21 bonus point triumph over Italy and things got even better seven days later when Ireland were dispatched 36-10 with a bonus point at the same venue.

The Scotland women’s team was well and truly on the move and Francesca recounted:  “When we managed to get the win versus Italy there was a sense of relief and a sense of pride, but also a sense that this was just the beginning of something because we knew we were good enough to beat other teams and the victory helped us change our mindset going forwards.

“The Ireland game the week after was then a high point of the Six Nations for the squad and also a highpoint for myself because I scored my first ever international try.

“When I watched my try back afterwards I thought to myself that I probably could have just kept running straight, but I cut back in and thankfully it worked.

“When I got up after scoring all of the subs and my other team mates were jumping on me an it was a bit mad, I couldn’t believe it really.

“And for the squad to come out of the tournament with two wins in a row and a fourth place finish really gave us something tangible to build on and take into the rest of 2023.

“I learnt so much during that Six Nations period. Obviously I worked harder on my skills than ever before, but I think one of the big things I learnt was about communication on the rugby pitch.

:It is so key so that everyone stays connected and it is something I have really worked at and, in terms of my whole game, the girls within the Scotland squad and the coaches have helped me and been great with me since day one.”

An Autumn Test friendly win at Hive Stadium followed over Spain with Francesa scoring again while around that time her contract with Leicester Tigers was firmed up.

Before she would fully be integrated into the Tigers’ squad though, in October she headed off to South Africa with Scotland for the inaugural WXV 2 event.

In and around Cape Town, bonus point wins were secured over the hosts (31-17), USA (24-14, Francesca scoring) and Japan (38-7) as Scotland made it six wins in a row for the first time since 2001, two years before the flying winger was even born.

Francesca picks up the story, stating:  “We went into WXV 2 wanting to win and knowing that we could. We beat South Africa in the first game and we knew that it was not the perfect performance, so we worked on a few things before the USA match and bult on that further against Japan.

“To have taken the record to six wins in a row in total was great after three wins out there, but then we had to see whether Italy could get above us in the WXV 2 standings when they played USA [the day after Scotland-Japan].

“It seemed like the longest 80 minutes ever watching that!

“Credit to Italy they gave it everything, but USA defended really well towards the end and when the final whistle blew and we knew we had won the competition the celebrations were amazing [a 30-8 bonus point win for Italy left them on +53 points difference with the Scots on +55).

“Lifting a trophy for Scotland is something most of us had maybe dreamt of, but for it to happen was just incredible and it has given us even more confidence heading into 2024 and the Six Nations which will come around quickly.

“After coming back from South Africa, hearing I’d been nominated for the World Rugby’s women’s 15s breakthrough player of the year award was just the icing on the cake of an incredible year.

“In the last couple of months I have been working hard with the Leicester Tigers squad and I feel so fortunate to be able to part of two great environments at club and country.”

So, 2023 was an exciting one for Francesca and Scotland, let’s see what 2024 has in store with a Six Nations opener away to Wales on March 23 on the horizon