It is tricky to spot any dramatic difference in “Stern” Vern Cotter’s demeanour after his first, and perhaps last, Six Nations victory over Ireland. But post match the normally stone-faced Kiwi allowed the ghost of a smile to toy with the edges of his mouth when asked if yesterday’s victory was the most pleasing of international career?
“I think it would have to be,” he conceded. “I am really happy for the players who put in so much work during the week and that validates that work. The determination they have to succeed.
“I am really happy and we will enjoy five minutes tonight and get back to work tomorrow but it certainly changes the dynamic, starting the Six Nations with a win and you can feel that. Everybody speaks about it. But it’s only one win and I know that everyone’s feet will be on the ground.”
The coach was backed by skipper Greig Laidlaw, who kicked two penalties in the final ten minutes to win this match. Before the last one Scotland were defending a slender two-point lead and, mindful of some near misses in the recent past, Laidlaw was asked what was going through his mind.
“Don’t hit the post!” was his blunt response, since the ball in play would have given Ireland once last chance to steal the show.
But a look at the match statistics tells you that Ireland should have won because the visitors dominated almost every aspect of play.
They enjoyed around 60 per cent of possession and territory, they made 12 line breaks compared to four from Scotland and they beat 32 defenders compared to eight for Scotland. Scotland’s defence was heroic.
Cotter’s squad would have lost a tight match like this just one year ago but this team has learned from their mistakes. They have matured mentally, as Laidlaw asserted when asked the question.
“Yeah, there is. There definitely is [a change],” he said. “We know what plays to go to in tight games, we know what to do to keep them out.
“We probably lost our way a bit in the third period of the game so just to grab it back was so pleasing. The lineout started to function, we put them under pressure and picked up a couple of penalties.
“We’re a changed group and we want to drive this whole thing forward, especially when we pull these jerseys on at home. We don’t want to be getting beaten any more.”
The new-found resilience was personified by the man of the match, Scotland’s full-back Stuart Hogg, who has never lacked a competitive edge but is now using his head as well, resulting in yesterday’s spectacular performance, witnessed by Lions coach Warren Gatland.
“I think he put in a great performance today,” said Cotter, who was unusually generous in his praise. “He [Hogg] obviously hasn’t done himself any harm at all. He sets high standards and that is an example for the others as well.”
The Hawick man scored two tries. The opener was easy enough, but only Hogg would have had the chutzpah to dummy a full-back of Rob Kearney’s experience to create the second try. In truth it was a team effort. Richie Gray won the lineout, Laidlaw picked the ball off his toes, Josh Strauss drove it up and Huw “Shug” Jones held Keith Earl’s attention to buy Hogg half a yard, which was all he needed.
“A wee bit of luck I think,” claimed Hogg of that second try. “A couple of times early on I gave the ball to Seany Maitland and Kearney read it really well and bounced off and tackled him so I thought I’d just try something a little bit different and thankfully it came off.
“We were under the pump a little bit but I never felt we were in a position that we were going to lose that game.”