IT is Vern Cotter’s first ever Six Nations Championship and the New Zealand newcomer is excited by the prospect. We know this because he tells us so. Everything else – the body language, the demeanour, the voice – all suggests another day at the office. He doesn’t give much away, Big Vern.
He doesn’t do emotional or demonstrative, at least not for the press, at least not yet. Instead he does understated, preferring shadows to limelight. In fact Cotter seems as reticent about taking centre stage as his immediate predecessor, Scott Johnson, was reluctant to stand anywhere else. At one point just after he’d arrived in the country Cotter was quizzed on his rugby philosophy.
“I don’t like talking about myself to be honest,” came his guarded reply.
Like many of his fellow countrymen, Cotter is straightforward and straight talking but, just when he appears as a cardboard cut-out caricature of a dour Kiwi, he offers a neat line in desert-dry humour. The assembled press were whacking him for plucking his fellow countryman, Hugh Blake, inset, from Otago obscurity before dropping him into Scotland’s Six Nations squad and Cotter fought his corner.
“Hamish Watson is a young player who has come through the system.”
It was politely pointed out that the Edinburgh openside was born and brought up in England.
“Well,” Cotter responds with the hint of a smile, “it’s not that far away.”
Cotter doesn’t make the rules regarding eligibility, he just abides by them. He has been tasked with winning international matches so that is what he will do, within the rules and as best he can. He is not political, he does not scheme, he is no sophist and that is meant as a compliment. If picking Blake means he gets brickbats in the media, then so be it. At one point the Kiwi is asked if he dropped the old guard to give them the psychological equivalent of a kick in the pants?
“I am not into playing mind games,” Cotter responds, “I am into seeing people perform.” And he goes on to defend Blake’s selection by pointing out that brothers Richie and Jonny Gray’s locking of the second row was a huge vote of confidence in Scottish home-grown talent. His record to date, five wins and two defeats (to New Zealand and South Africa), suggests that Cotter deserves some slack.
He is a hard taskmaster and everyone notes his attention to detail, a little like a latter day Jim Telfer, whose brain he has already picked and not, surely, for the last time. If there are similarities between the two men, there are also differences. For Telfer rugby was not about enjoyment, it was just what you did. Cotter may look like the family dog just died but having fun is fundamental to his sporting ethos.
“It’s about people and character and this group has got it,” he said last week. “It’s just encouraging them to have fun and enjoy themselves. They work extremely hard, and things will just develop within the group once they start throwing themselves about and doing things for each other. Things happen within the group and our role is just to put them in situations where they find out more about themselves and develop and improve. I am a firm believer that you just play rugby, I think it’s the best job in the world and you should have fun doing it.”
Cotter spent five years at Clermont and Scotland play France first up in Paris, where they haven’t triumphed since the championship winning team of 1999 blew Les Bleus clear out of the water. Surely all his time in France will help the coach prepare for the inevitable onslaught next Saturday evening?
“Having coached in France I know what’s coming and it’s going to be really tough,” says Cotter. “I think they are on the up. I think it’s always dangerous playing them after a defeat and I know there is a lot of frustration in the French public with not getting the results they would like to see. They will want to create a positive dynamic within the group going towards the World Cup.”
Is it a good thing or a bad thing to have France first up?
“I’ll tell you after the game.”
If they can paper over the cracks in the front row then Scotland have an outside chance of opening with a rare win in Paris. Whoever is picked in the starting XV, the visitors will boast the best midfield since 1999, when the trio of Gregor Townsend, John Leslie and Alan Tait sliced the French wide open in Paris where they scored five first-half tries before shutting up shop. For the first time this millennium the back division may be stronger than the Scottish forward pack.
Overall the Scots are improved in body and in spirit but skipper Greig Laidlaw cautioned last week that “we are far from the finished article” and you still wouldn’t bet the bank on them beating anyone other than Italy, at least on paper. A good start is equally important for momentum and morale and France’s record under Philippe Saint-Andre is embarrassingly bad but no one doubts the ability within their ranks should they decide to turn up on any given day. Ireland and Wales are as strong as they have ever been and England will be once they get some of their walking wounded back into action.
The point is that Scotland have never been fancied in this tournament except, briefly, in the 1920s and the 1990s. The Scots are perennial underdogs, whether they like it or not. They have to be at, or very close to, their bolshy best to have any chance of success and in Cotter they have a coach who understands that much.
“We will prepare ourselves as best as possible to get a positive result,” he replies when asked about how many wins he is targeting. “I’ve talked about the bounce of the ball, those other teams are ranked ahead of us, we’d like to think we have a fair chance on the day if we perform at our best, that’s what we have to do, every game. If we’re not then things will become tricky and complicated. Our objective is to be at our utmost.”
Is he excited by the imminent arrival of his first Six Nations tournament?
“Absolutely,” Cotter deadpans. “I’m really looking forward to it.”
Maybe he is, the big Kiwi doesn’t give much away.