Judge me on the performances rather than the results. So said Scott Johnson at regular intervals during his two-year tenure as Scotland head coach. Well, if you insist.
In five Championship matches, his Scotland team turned up just twice. Firstly for a brave win over Italy and secondly for a loss to France that should never have occurred. The other three matches, Scotland were effectively ghosts, shadowy creatures who only obliquely interacted with the reality on the ground, rarely if ever having a profound effect on the action. It culminated in Saturday’s disastrous showing in Cardiff.
There will be finger pointing and recriminations, wailing and gnashing of teeth, but one man will be sporting a grin as broad as the Severn estuary after Scotland crumbled in Cardiff…Vern Cotter. The Kiwi coach joins Scotland just as soon as Clermont’s season is over. If they contest the Top 14 final scheduled for 31 May, he won’t hook up with the national squad until they are boarding the flight to Houston, Texas in the first week of June.
Cotter may be pondering his own sanity for taking on a basket case such as Scotland, but the coach is a typical Kiwi who knows that this Scotland side have not done themselves justice. He is the very antithesis of his immediate predecessor Johnson, a quiet, serious, straight-forward, straight-talking Kiwi who calls things as he sees them and whose reputation across the channel in France is rock solid. If you are going to take over a team, doing so at rock bottom is a canny career move since there is only one way to go.
A very decent breakaway in his playing days, Cotter will understand the old adage that forwards win matches and backs determine by how much. He will have seen Scotland’s set-piece struggles and he will have drawn a mental line in the sand. When he gets here he may wonder where the next generation of front row forwards are to be found, and can the SRU please get a refund from the former director of rugby Graham Lowe whose job it was to ensure a steady supply.
The front row crisis will see some young props pushed hard to fulfil their promise, while Cotter is likely to look at some of the older heads who have failed to live up to early expectations. WP Nel is already pencilled in at No 3 for the World Cup, but Glasgow’s English tighthead Mike Cusack also qualifies for his adopted land this summer and he is back in action after a long injury lay-off.
On the loosehead side, Alex Allan is the coming man – one English premier club was after his signature – but Jon Welsh should not be written off too soon. Anyone who can hold up Martin Castrogiovanni, as Welsh did two years ago in Rome, with five minutes’ notice deserves a second chance. He is one of those players that the SRU has attempted to move about with no good coming of it. Welsh is a good loosehead but an ordinary tighthead and Scotland already have too many of those.
Players come and players go but at 27 John Barclay should be enjoying his best years. He and Ross Rennie will both be in the mix for the No 7 shirt. Rennie is a little more dynamic, Barclay a little more physical, both are specialist sevens and both are playing good stuff out of the immediate eye of the Scotland selectors.
Simon Easterby knows a bit about backrow play and the Scarlets’ coach had this to say about his Scottish flanker only last week. “John has been outstanding…he has been excellent. He has been very good on the floor, competitive in the contact, but he is also a good footballer. The way we are playing at the moment suits him, he is getting the ball in his hands in attack, he is playing very well and looks the part.
“Scotland will have to look at him at some point if he continues to play at the same level. Maybe Vern [Cotter] coming in will have a different outlook on John because clearly at the moment he isn’t Scott Johnson’s cup of tea.”
Kelly Brown may be best utilised off the bench where he covers all three backrow positions. David Denton continues to run himself into the ground for the cause.
Once he has the forwards sorted Cotter can turn his hand to revitalising the backline that started the season with such promise. In fact, he can leave most of it well alone because the outside backs – Matt Scott, Alex Dunbar, Sean Maitland, Tim Visser, Sean Lamont, Tommy Seymour and Stuart Hogg – have enough about them to score tries against almost any team in Test rugby. Cotter needs to concentrate his attentions on the halfbacks.
Greig Laidlaw is a canny character but his kicking off the tee has been poor and he lacks the athleticism of Chris Cusiter who has injected pace and urgency into every game off the bench.
Who makes up the other half of the combo remains Cotter’s biggest headache because no-one has made the shirt his own. Cotter’s conundrum is whether to give Duncan Weir a run of games all the way to the World Cup or whether to hand someone else the shirt with just 12-14 Tests between now and next year’s World Cup to bed in.
Tom Heathcote of Bath, Glasgow’s Finn Russell and Edinburgh’s everyman Greig Tonks will all come into the equation, but why, someone suggested just the other day, has no-one picked up the phone to Scotland’s rugby league skipper Danny Brough and asked him if he fancies a kick at the union ball?
The little man has all the skills required…Laidlaw’s intelligence allied to a far more athletic frame. He could do a shift as either nine or ten and he kicks goals to boot. Brough was last season’s Super League Man of Steel and he obviously comes complete with leadership credentials. What he doesn’t have is any experience of the 15-a-side game.