IT’S A game and everyone playing knows it. All week long the journalists have been poking Vern Cotter, gently of course, in an attempt to chivy the coach into admitting that this afternoon’s match is a “must-win” game for his young side. And all week long the Kiwi has been denying any such thing.
The journos ask him questions about the importance of claiming his first Six Nations victory and Cotter responds with talk about processes, procedures and preparation. He won’t be held hostage to fortune.
“We want to focus on the preparation for this game and then execute as best we can through the period of the game,” he said last week. “The guys have worked really hard this week, there has been a real focus on taking Wales on and giving them a run for their money.”
Why so coy about the “V” word? Perhaps because his Scotland side could play very well today and finish a distant second. Welsh rugby is in an entirely different orbit to the Scottish game. In the last decade Wales have won three Grand Slams and four Championships. They were one yellow card away from an appearance in the previous World Cup final and they have genuine designs on this one. In that time Scotland have won precisely hee-haw.
The average age of the two starting teams is oddly exactly the same (27.1 years) but there the similarities cease. The Welsh squad boasts 932 caps compared to Scotland’s 591 and the visitors are stuffed full of British and Irish Test Lions. Ten Welshmen started the Lions’ last gig in Sydney, eight of them appear in today’s squad.
Cotter goes way back with Warren Gatland. He played against the Welsh coach when Bay of Plenty (or Counties, he can’t remember) faced Waikato and more recently the pair fetched up on a trip to Bermuda, the details of which Cotter was keeping to himself. But Cotter was not aware that his fellow Kiwi has never lost to Scotland because Wales are currently on a record-breaking run of seven consecutive victories.
“That is probably why they fancy their chances so much,” is his wry response to the news, but why wouldn’t they? Scotland’s wretched run of form against Wales has seen them record just one victory in 12 years.
Cotter knows Gatland well enough to know that his fellow countryman won’t change the gospel that he has been preaching since he arrived in Wales in 2007, even if some traditionalists see his mantra: “Thou shalt smite thine opposition remorselessly with one-out runners”, as little short of blasphemy in a land that has always worshiped skill over brute strength.
“He’ll be looking at the success they’ve had against Scotland over the past few years and be doing the same only harder and faster,” said Cotter when asked what he expected from Wales. “They will still be playing with the same intrinsic values, so they will be playing with Jamie Roberts and will be playing with Alex Cuthbert coming off his wing. I think Dan Bigger has good vision in the game. He’ll be looking for his forward pack to become more aggressive than they were last week.”
So, where can Scotland get a toe hold in this contest? Well, they could look south for inspiration because England did pretty well especially when it came to the set piece. Aaron Jarvis is not Adam Jones, or even Samson Lee, and Richard Hibbard is a little wayward when asked to throw long to the tail of the lineout, the ball that gives the opposition no chance to close down Roberts, pictured, before the centre hits his straps.
The key to this game is stopping the big Welsh runners on the gain line and getting on top in the set piece is the first step.
“We can take heart from our defence against France last week,” Cotter says. “It was important to stop their big runners and we did it with a certain amount of efficiency, but we will certainly have to lift every aspect of our performance in defence.
“England managed to dominate them in the second half by making some changes and, more importantly, they had a dominant scrum and a dominant lineout. So, those are things we are looking at as well,”
Wales remain streets ahead of Scotland, but there is a nagging suspicion that the tide may be turning, that the gap may just be narrowing. Wales are a tad predictable, they have probably plateaued and may even be on the downward slope while Scotland, on the opposite side of the cosmic see-saw, are a little unpredictable and the fans are beginning to believe that their side may have more to offer.
“We will be looking to apply pressure on those areas that England got success from and seeing how the referee sees that as well,” said Cotter, who knows the whistle blower of old.
Glen Jackson was his flyhalf at Bay of Plenty when Cotter started his coaching career, although he was quick to point out that the friendship did Scotland little good when the Kiwi officiated their match against South Africa last summer.
“He didn’t do us any favours in South Africa,” says Cotter, only half joking. “No, Glen is a good referee. He was touch judge in France last week and I managed to say hello. We’ll meet him before the game and I am sure he will have done his home work.As an ex-first five he likes to see movement in the game but, like I said, he’s adept, he’s intelligent, he’s good all over.”
Cotter is meticulous in his preparation, even to the point of buttering up the referee, but still the coach can’t guarantee a win today. That task falls to his players who should have enough about them to take Wales all the way to a photo finish.
Where the match will be won and lost
This is the big one. Momentum is all and the Welsh attack feeds off it ravenously. England denied Wales any go-forward ball last week and, without it, the likes of Jamie Roberts and George North were stopped in their tracks before they raised a head of steam. Scotland must do the same because if Wales’ big men take the ball on the gain line at pace they will do some damage.
Two years ago Scotland (and the referee) were suckered by the Welsh tactic of taking a “soft hit” at the scrum and the entire match was a shambles. The new engagement laws should mean an end to that nonsense. Wales are without Adam Jones (retired, feeling hurt) and his heir apparent (Samson Lee) so Alasdair Dickinson, pictured, who is in the form of his life, will fancy his chances of putting Aaron Jarvis on the back foot.
Wales famously employ a rush defence, even inside their own 22, although Shaun Edwards may be having a rethink. Last season England’s Luther Burrell scored from a grubber kicked in behind the on-rushing red wall and last weekend winger Anthony Watson was the beneficiary of the same tactic. Scotland will have noted the twin tries and will do their utmost to emulate them this afternoon. Will Wales have designated a sweeper by then?
The lineout drive
We saw on the opening weekend just how effective this tactic can be with France and England both milking penalties and points from a strong mauling game. The two forward packs on Sunday are more evenly matched than those on the opening weekend, but that won’t prevent both sides attempting the tactic especially inside the opposition half and, remember, Leigh Halfpenny is deadly from 60 yards.
We talk about discipline every week because every week it proves vital. The Scots were undone at the breakdown
in Paris (plus a couple of dumb offsides) where players held onto the ball reluctant to give the French turnovers.
The Scots still concede too many soft penalties to give the opposition a grip on the game, and whoever dominates the breakdown can usually force the opposition into conceding, but the first part of that equation isn’t so easy.