AHEAD of the 2007 Rugby World Cup, Frank Hadden made it his mission to assemble a Scotland team that was bigger and stronger than ever before. Spooked by the way his lightweight side had fallen apart against Italy just a few months earlier, the former school teacher organised a gruelling three-month preparation programme which transformed his players into one of the most physically imposing teams in the tournament.
This approach achieved a level of vindication when Chris Paterson slotted six penalties to secure an 18-16 victory over Italy in rain-lashed St Etienne, safeguarding Scotland’s proud record of having reached the last eight of every World Cup since the tournament’s inception in 1987. But it was hard to escape the feeling that something had been lost along the way.
The joy of rugby had been shoved aside by cold calculation. Scotland didn’t want to outplay the opposition – they wanted to squeeze penalties and let Paterson’s metronomic boot do the rest. It might have been effective but it was also pretty uninspiring.
Hadden’s men lost their quarter-final when they came up against an Argentine team with a very similar mind-set, and a stronger set-piece. There was no shame in the 19-13 scoreline, but the fact that Scotland came within a whisker of stealing victory after throwing caution to the wind during the final ten minutes merely served to reinforce the view that a little bit more ambition might have made a big difference.
In 2009, Andy Robinson replaced Hadden in the Scotland hot-seat, and the former England flanker initially brought refreshing energy and ambition to the role.
He was intensely passionate about the game and was steadfast in his belief that a more integrated approach was the only way that Scotland could be successful. The problem was that he needed his players to execute his game plan, and he wasn’t always successful at getting the most out of his charges.
Decisions such as dropping captain Al Kellock for the team’s crucial pool match against Argentina (again!) in the 2011 World Cup seemed to have a disorientating effect.
A late drop-goal from Dan Parks put Scotland into a commanding 12-6 lead in that match against the Pumas, but a few players were slow getting back into position to collect the restart, allowing the South Americans to surge upfield for Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino to snatch the match-winning try.
Scotland lost 16-12 to England six days later, meaning that this time they failed to make it out of their group for the first time in World Cup history. They would win only three summer tour matches in their next 11 outings, before Robinson fell on his sword the morning after a humiliating defeat to tiny Tonga in Aberdeen.
Vern Cotter would have taken little more than a passing interest in Scotland during these two previous World Cup campaigns.
The New Zealander was busy in France forging his coaching reputation with Clermont Auvergne.
However, since taking over the reins at Murrayfield last summer he is sure to have asked around about what has and hasn’t worked in the past – and he is clearly set on a build-up to this World Cup which will enthuse and empower the players as much as build them up physically.
Ross Ford, a veteran of both the 2007 and 2011 World Cup campaigns, believes that the players are feeling liberated by the way Cotter has set about preparing the team for the challenges which lie ahead.
“We’re enjoying it a lot because it’s more skill-based,” said the 85-times capped hooker. “Vern made a good point in training the other day. He said: ‘Don’t take yourself seriously but take the job seriously’. He’s looking for boys to have a good time and have fun but still work hard at what we’re here to do. The boys take that seriously and respect the opportunity that we’ve got.
“In 2007, there wasn’t any skill work during the first five to six weeks – it was all fitness. Then in 2011, there was a bit more skill work added in earlier on. But this time, we’ve been skill-based right from the start,” Ford continued.
“Even the strength and conditioning stuff is tailored towards being ready to play rugby – not just being massively strong under a weights bar. It’s about being able to work with bodies, wrestle them and throw them about, instead of just [working with] bits of steel.”
“And we’re right in there with game-based training. It’s still hard work but you don’t mind because you are working with a rugby ball as opposed to just running by yourself all the time – which gets a bit boring.”
There has been a lot of talk in the press in recent weeks about the training camp in Font Romeu, when the squad were led on a series of drills by French marines from a nearby base. This included a hike into the Pyrenees, where they had to spend the night sleeping under the stars on an exposed summit.
It might have been character-building stuff, but Ford reckons the real value of what went on in France was the way it built morale within the squad.
“The stuff with the marines was probably the easier of the two parts,” said the hooker. “The [rugby] training was really tough whereas the stuff we did with the marines was more about team building. The night in the mountains was alright and down at the beach was a good laugh – the obstacles didn’t look too difficult but when you’re in the water, trying to catch your breath, it was a wee bit daunting.
“It was tough but it brought everyone together. We all know what is expected of us now, and how hard we need to work to get to the next level. It is experiences like that which we will look back on and draw strength from when the going gets tough in the future.”
The mood in the camp may be overwhelmingly positive but there is no escaping the fact that Scotland are coming off a calamitous Six Nations whitewash. Ford insists that all the right steps are being taken to make sure the shortcomings of spring do not come back to haunt the team this autumn.
“It is the skill base that we need to get better at,” he said. “There were times in the Six Nations that our skills let us down and, there’s no getting round it, that’s what will win you games.
“It’s not necessarily about dedicating a whole training session to one thing and working for hours on end with that. It’s about seeing something that you want to be able to do and getting together with a wee group and working at it whenever you get a free moment throughout the week.
“It’s always going to be a bit rusty when you come back together, especially with new boys coming in and having to learn the calls – but now we are able to throw in a few more things and put ourselves under a little bit more pressure and it’s looking good.”