It is a fair assumption that media duties don’t rate too highly on Vern Cotter’s list of favourite things but he was as much in his element as it is possible to imagine yesterday ahead of tomorrow’s match against the nation which has played such a big part in his life and work.
Answering questions from the visiting media in his fluent French and clearly relishing the challenge of taking on his erstwhile adopted homeland, the Kiwi slipped in a bit of dry humour when he was asked what part of Gallic rugby culture he would like to import to the other half of the “Auld Alliance”.
“The red wine and cheese,” he said with a grin.
After pointing out the chasm in playing numbers between the nations, he went on to praise the rugby culture which already exists in Scotland, before pointing to the BT Murrayfield back pitches and adding: “Still, if you could set up a vineyard just outside there…”
Cotter made the move to France from New Zealand in the early 1990s and played club rugby there for a decade before heading home to coach at Bay of Plenty and Crusaders.
He returned to France for the successful eight-year spell at Clermont Auvergne which established him as one of European rugby’s top coaches and, after narrow defeats in last year’s Six Nations and World Cup warm-up Tests in Paris, hopes it will be third time lucky against Les Bleus at home tomorrow and a first Scottish win in the fixture since 2006.
“The first thing you need to do in any game is be prepared to adapt, be ready for something that you might not have expected. With the French, you don’t know what they’re going to bring,” said Cotter when asked to assess the task in hand.
“They will have looked at us and found ways to access the game, to apply pressure. So I think they will try to kick down the paddock and go for zero-pass play, for a start, and then move it wide and try to get past us with that width.
“We need to stay looking up the field and seeing what’s coming, then make sure we adapt. That will be the key. At the same time, we need to apply pressure. Like any team, they don’t like going backwards. If we can turn their big forward pack around, that would be a positive for us, because wrestling the ball off them is going to be tough.”
Speaking before French counterpart Guy Noves named his team, which included a recall at stand-off for Francois Trinh-Duc, Cotter was asked his opinion on a French side who are generally considered to be in transition under the new coaching team.
“We have had a good look at them. They’ve got good players,” he said. “They have 30 professional clubs to pick their players from and they have some very talented individuals. You can see the way they are playing. They’re moving the ball, keeping it alive. They are creating space by doing that and if you give them space they will cut you apart. I think it has worked well for them.
“They have a solid pack and they have experience. They have ball winners and ball carriers so it will be a tough game. We want to try and keep them behind the advantage line as much as we can, but that will be difficult. They’re a hard team to contain.
“They came back against Italy and won the game, and I thought they were dogged against Ireland. They probably didn’t get reward for their dominance in the second half against Wales. They are a tough team to play.”
Cotter insisted that any confidence from the win in Italy has been tempered by the realisation that the pressure is now on to back that up with a home victory over opponents they have toiled to beat for a decade.
“It is not in the character of this [Scotland] team to get ahead of themselves,” he said. “They realise that this is going to be a tough encounter. There are things we have put in place and got results but we are by no means the finished article. In training this week I have felt we still have more to give.
“We need to become more accurate and that will be the focus before we take the paddock. But it is a great challenge and it’s good to be able to be in a situation where you have worked for a win and are in a position to go for another.”
There is no place this weekend for Mark Bennett, one of Scotland’s stars of the World Cup, after three below par displays since he returned from an injury that kept him out for a month at the start of the year. The coach said of the centre: “This weekend will be a good opportunity to sit back, take stock and move forward again. He is still a very good player.”
Cotter also explained why the London Irish pair of Blair Cowan and Sean Maitland, who were released back to their club with injuries then played against Bath last weekend before travelling to New York for today’s historic Premiership meeting with Saracens. “They were injured, they left us – a head knock [Cowan] and they went through their own assessment for Sean’s [hamstring] injury. They declared them both fit. In that same time, we obviously put in a decent game against Italy.
“So I think, rather than get them up here, they’ve gone to the States with their club.”