The upcoming Six Nations campaign has a different feel to it for more than one reason. First up it is coach Vern Cotter’s last kick at the ball in Scotland colours before he joins Montpellier in the summer.
As the end draws nearer the Kiwi has visibly relaxed, at least with the press, and we will miss him when he is gone, especially his ability to maintain a façade of nonchalance, like the orchestra on the Titanic when the SS Scotland has hit an iceberg.
Scotland haven’t won their first match in a Six Nations campaign since 2006 and their chances of breaking that long losing streak lengthened considerably with the news that WP Nel was a doubtful starter (it is now confirmed he will miss the whole tournament), with fellow prop Alasdair Dickinson already out of the equation for the opening two fixtures.
“We did have our fingers crossed on that one,” Cotter said with far more sang-froid than he could have been feeling, “because they both had such a good Six Nations last year. The scrum is so important but if they are not there we were more than happy with Allan Dell and Zander Fagerson.”
The Scotland coach may well be happy with Dell and Fagerson, both men exceeded expectations in the autumn, but rugby is a game of 80 minutes and few props, especially those at the start of their careers, are able to go the distance.
He didn’t admit as much but Cotter is undoubtedly a lot less confident in his third-choice picks who now come into play. Gordon Reid and/or Alex Allan will do their bit on the loosehead berth but Scotland do not have a third international-class tighthead. Simon Berghan and Jon Welsh, whose last act for Scotland was conceding that penalty against Australia in the 2015 Rugby World Cup, are brought in on a wing and a prayer.
Not only is this Cotter’s last kick of the ball, there are other reasons to expect something different from this campaign, namely the new clampdown on head-high tackles, whether deemed dangerous or not.
We have already seen the results in Europe. Montpellier were always going to lose to Leinster at the RDS but Frans Steyn’s red mist followed quickly by a red card meant it was a cricket score. Like it or not, the new law will take its toll and the chances of cards have increased, as Cotter conceded when asked if Scotland were preparing to play short-handed?
“I think it would be prudent to do that,” said the coach, offering his best Gordon Brown impersonation. “You need to have a contingency plan. We have contingencies but if a back gets a red card do you take a forward off and bring him [a replacement for the dismissed back] back on or do you play with eight forwards and six backs? So there are a few things, depending on who goes down and team requirements.
“I hope it doesn’t happen and I genuinely think there has been some good debate over this and hopefully there will be some good decisions made. There are experienced referees in the Six Nations and some of the decisions we have seen that have been a bit harsh have been referees that haven’t had the experience.”
Another change is the introduction of a bonus-point system. Teams will get bonus points for four tries or more and for finishing within seven of the opposition but, because that means a team could win the Grand Slam but still not win the championship, any side winning all their matches gets an additional three point bonus.
It is convoluted, unnecessary and mostly meaningless, at least for Scotland. Simply winning matches has been a rare enough event over the past decade that it renders any search for bonus points almost irrelevant. Will we really feel better about life if Scotland lose by seven rather than eight points?
Bonus points may have a modest effect but the biggest difference in this year’s tournament is that it will host the second, fourth, fifth, seventh and eighth teams in world rugby’s ranking, as well as Italy who are down in 13th place. Never have European nations been so strong in comparison with the southern hemisphere big four.
“I don’t think intellectual property resides uniquely in New Zealand,” was how Cotter put it. “There’s a lot developed up here in the northern hemisphere and we’ve seen that. The Irish game was a good example of it, and if you look at what England are doing, they’re full of confidence and have got a large number of good players.
“Wales have always been there and have the confidence to get up. On their tour of NZ last summer, even though they got beaten heavily they were changing the way they were playing to be more open. And Italy beat South Africa, one of the big headlines of the autumn series. I think it’s improving, I think it [the gap] is closing.”
England are on a winning run of 14 matches and aiming at the All Blacks’ record of 18. Wales have the core of the last Lions Test team, even if they are without their coach. Even Italy, the flakiest of all the lot, managed to beat the Springboks and Ireland are the most impressive of all.
Joe Schmidt’s team lie fourth in the rugby rankings but that hardly does justice to a team that bested South Africa, Australia and New Zealand in the course of 2016. They have the best front and back rows in Europe, they boast the best half-backs in Conor Murray and a rejuvenated Jonny Sexton and in Joe Schmidt they boast the best coach in world rugby.
“We know where we are in world rugby,” said Cotter. “We know the teams we play are ranked better than us bar one [actually, bar two – Scotland are seventh, France eighth]. Every one of those teams are improving, we’re trying to improve and I think we have, but the others have as well.”