Why Claire Cruikshank's involvement with Scotland is another major tick in the box for university rugby

Claire Cruikshank is part of Scotland's coaching team at the World Cup in New Zealand
©Rugby People

Claire Cruikshank has every reason to be enthused.

Back in April, it would have made sense if Edinburgh University's Head of Performance for Ladies' Rugby was initially downbeat after her 1st XV lost the BUCS National League Championship final.

But just weeks later, she had dusted herself down and her focus had switched from the student game to the international stage.

Cruikshank applied to be part of Scotland's 2021 Rugby World Cup Coaching Internship Programme and she proved to be the outstanding candidate as her latest role was confirmed in June.

Her 12-year tenure shaping the programme at Edinburgh and improving players, in Cruikshank's own words, may or may not have landed her the job but why not choose somebody who has an affiliation with so many of Scotland's World Cup squad?

Twelve of their 32-strong party in New Zealand - who are currently preparing for their tournament opener against Wales on Sunday - have a connection with Edinburgh University. Nine are alumni and three - Meryl Smith, Elliann Clarke and Shona Campbell - will be with the institution during this academic year.

Whilst she is too humble to admit it herself, the progress of that student contingent is primarily down to Cruikshank and the university programme.

"It [the job] was advertised through Scottish Rugby and World Rugby when Scotland qualified," Cruikshank tells TRU. "I put in an application and obviously it was an interview process from there and I'd like to think the university programme helped me be successful in that. I can't say it definitely did but I'd like to hope it did!

"It has been 12 years since Scotland were at World Cup. A lot of these players maybe hadn't started playing rugby or were just little girls the last time Scotland went to a World Cup. Some of them might have been at university during that period so it is lovely to see them all come through the programme.

"That side of things has been helpful because I knew a lot of the players coming into the role with Scotland. They knew me and again the management, I work with them through my role with Edinburgh Uni. That link was already there and actually, it has helped loads."

The relationships between high-performance programmes at universities and professional environments are constantly evolving and Cruikshank immersing herself in a World Cup campaign is just the latest striking example of this. In BUCS Super Rugby - the top league in the men's student game - links with Gallagher Premiership clubs and Welsh regions have become the norm and the Women's National League is certainly beginning to mirror this aspect.

Hartpury University - who beat Cruikshank's side in April - brought Gloucester-Hartpury and England star Natasha 'Mo' Hunt into their coaching set-up a couple of years ago whilst Exeter University have the impressive Poppy Leitch at the helm and league champions Durham are under the stewardship of former Premiership player Cooper Vuna.

Lisa Newton's extensive knowledge of university rugby continues to pull Cardiff Met in the right direction and Katie Trevarthen's involvement across the board with Loughborough means there is a lot to admire about both the player pathway in the university game, but also the standard of coaching.

"Having guys like Poppy, Mo, Cooper, it just adds credibility to the league and hopefully all of us across the league can bring value and experience," Cruikshank says. "I think it just shows the standard the National League is at as well because it is attracting such top-quality coaches to be involved in it. It is a brilliant league. It is a brilliant product."

Cruikshank reveals she caught up with Hunt in the summer to share ideas about how their programmes work and to learn more about each other's philosophies. Soaking up insight from her counterparts - as well as at the top of the game with Scotland - is key for the Edinburgh boss when it comes to her own coaching journey, but also when aiding Edinburgh.

"I am always looking for different ways of working, different experiences," she adds. "It is about thinking, 'Is there a better way of doing things? How can I take some of the information I am learning within the national team to put it in place at the Uni?' I am always looking for extra bits of knowledge or different ideas."

Of course, ensuring Scotland put their best foot forward in New Zealand is the priority for Cruikshank but she admits she will be keeping a 'close eye' on all things Edinburgh from the other side of the world as the team look to maintain their upward trajectory.

The experienced Gordon Lyon has taken the reins in Cruikshank's absence and there may well have been a few cheers in Whangarei [where Scotland are based] in the early hours of Thursday morning as Edinburgh began the new BUCS National League season with a 22-19 victory over Loughborough.

Championship winners Hartpury showed their intentions in Week One with a thumping 66-0 win against Durham while Cardiff Met defeated newly-promoted Exeter 26-19, with Laura Satterly grabbing the decisive try.

BUCS Super Rugby Round-Up

The University of Nottingham made it two wins from two in their maiden BUCS Super Rugby campaign as they recorded a 34-10 bonus-point win over Swansea. The pick of the tries came from Elijah Hiscock-Smith and the superb Max Brown as Paul Westgate's side extended their unbeaten streak to 17 matches.

League champions Durham have started the season with successive victories following a 29-14 triumph away at Hartpury. After being level at 14-14 at the break, the Palatinate took the game away from their hosts in the second 40 while over in Wales, James Roberts' late try sealed a dramatic 27-24 derby day win for Cardiff against Cardiff Met in front of over 4,000 at the Arms Park.

Bath chalked up their first success of the term as they beat Leeds Beckett 24-5 in Yorkshire with England U20 international Jasper Spandler and Bath Rugby Academy winger Byron Lloyd-Gilmour among the tries. Elsewhere, Reece Malone, James Langston, Ben Smith and Harry Rowson all touched down as Loughborough inflicted a second loss of the campaign on championship holders Exeter.