By the time Vern Cotter faced the media after Saturday’s game that hint of moisture in the eyes witnessed as he took his acclaim on the pitch was long gone and he was, predictably, in no mood to indulge in an emotional look back at his time in charge of Scotland.
It was certainly not “Stern Vern”, though, as he took his exit with a few jokes, an air of joviality and an evident sense of pride in a job well done. As ever, though, his focus was on the players and the desire, as it has been from day one, to talk about the team’s progress and not about himself.
The Scots signed off the Cotter era with a clinical bonus-point 29-0 win over Italy, thanks to tries from man-of-the-match Finn Russell, Matt Scott, Tim Visser and Tommy Seymour.
Cotter refused to enter into any talk about “legacy” or make any self-judgment on the past three years but there were moments of reflection. When asked to pick out the key matches from the 36 he presided over it was a mark of the man that he chose to highlight the ones that went wrong.
Not the uplifting wins which have injected a much-needed surge of optimism into Scottish rugby, as witnessed by a first-ever sell-out at home to Italy on Saturday. Rather he selected the defeat to the same opposition two years previously, which acted as a fatal blow to the solar plexus in that whitewash season, and the subsequent home collapse to Ireland at the end of the same campaign.
This was not willful negativity on the Kiwi’s part but an acknowledgement that what was learned from those depressing afternoons revealed what was required to build the better days that lay ahead. In the same way that he believes that the trauma of that 61-21 loss at Twickenham, which casts an undeniable shadow over an otherwise excellent final season, will play a vital role in how this promising team goes on to develop in the Gregor Townsend years. Cotter preferred to use the term “springboards” rathern than “turning points” and said: “Two years ago, the game here against Italy and then, following that, the Irish game at home. They really gave us something to work on for the World Cup.
“And then it’s just been a gradual process of learning how to win. That’s what you do, you learn how to win. That’s what this has been all about, just trying to win games.”
Saturday was a good example of that. Things did not unfold as perfectly as the shut-out scoreline suggests and Scotland had to ride out some rocky patches but, ultimately, their self-belief when compared to the confidence-drained Italians shone through.
“We could have won, but we won with a bonus point. It wasn’t perfect. We varied our play. I liked the way it was a solid performance and it was well constructed,” said Cotter. “Rugby is never perfect because you are against opposition and they want to win as well.
“I thought a whole lot of things dragged together that meant we could keep a grip on the opposition. It wasn’t perfect. They could have scored a try and they didn’t because these guys didn’t want them to.”
Despite the impressive capacity crowd there was a slightly sleepy feel to the start of this brunchtime kick-off. It was scrappy and stop-start but Scotland took their chances at key moments, a ruthlessness which is one of the stand-out steps forward made under Cotter. Italy had chances but blew them all, butchering their two clear-cut try scoring opportunities and Carlo Canna missing three out of three kicks in the first half.
Conversely, Stuart Hogg nailed a long-range penalty to open the scoring and Russell, back to his bravura best after the bum notes of Twickenham, hit a great line to get over for the first try. Centre Matt Scott, on for the injured Huw Jones, pictured left, marked his first taste of the campaign with an opportunistic score after a high kick to the corner was patted back.
Visser showed his finisher’s instincts for the third and Seymour completed the best-worked of the four down the right to seal the bonus in the last ten minutes.
“The first things we worked on were composure and enjoying what you’re doing,” said Cotter. “Then it was developing skill sets that mean you can have more wins. There are a lot of things that have progressed throughout the last three years – the way we play, the way we want to control the ball, the way we try to get the ball back. I’ve got very good assistant coaches with me who have helped in all of those things. It’s not one thing. Winning three games in this Six Nations gives you an idea of what we’ve been trying to do.”
And, with a tip of the trademark baseball cap, that was it. Cotter took his leave to join his players, whose celebratory songs could be heard drifting from the changing room and with the ovation of a grateful Murrayfield crowd still ringing in his ears.