THERE is an old saying that opposites attract and if Scott Johnson had any say in hiring Vern Cotter then it might be more than an old wives’ tale.
While the voluble Australian is forever hogging the limelight, whether by chance or by choice, the New Zealand head coach he plucked from Clermont’s grasp has probably given up wisdom teeth with less of a struggle than he staged when the Scottish journos tried to find out a little more about the man himself.
“I don’t want to talk about it…I don’t want to answer that question…I don’t like talking about myself to be honest… I don’t want people to be interested in me…I don’t like talk for talking’s sake,” and, most painfully: “I think I have already answered that question.”
These were just a selection of the sort of defensive strokes not seen since Geoff Boycott quit the crease. At one point, we could not help feeling that Cotter was going to offer his name, rank and serial number before challenging us to do our worst.
He answered one question with one word but we eventually badgered a few quotable nuggets from the coach who did his level best to level with us on why he opted to follow his former colleague, Ireland coach Mike Schmidt, into the international arena with a struggling Scotland team for whom success is a distant memory.
“It is international rugby and I’m pleased to get the opportunity to coach Scotland,” says Cotter. “There is a World Cup in front of us, so it is very stimulating. I enjoy challenges. I have said this before, I think there is potential within the group. The group can grow. There are some experienced players and there is a generation of players coming through who are eager to play well and do well for Scotland. That was one of the reasons behind it.
“I saw Joe [Schmidt] last week as well. He says it is different and you don’t get the time with your players. You’re not coaching a club team any more; you’re a selector and the player development will be done through the clubs and, at various times, when we have them involved. It is a different type of work. Even though you’re not at the coalface every week with a game, you are still involved.
“A national team is different but, in rugby, it is all about the quality of people you have. I think there are some good people in place and some good structures in place. If I can help in any way to make these structures perform better, then that’s what I’m going to do.
“They are just good people. I like working with good people. There are good people in Scotland and I think there is a genuine desire to do better. There is a genuine frustration to do better. But we’ve got to be realistic as well. You’ve first got to know where you are and then identify where you want to go. We are in the process of doing that.
“You can’t plan your coaching career, you just get started and do the best you can. As a general rule, don’t plan your career. I never planned coaching Scotland, the job came up. I was interviewed and got it. I respect Scottish rugby and I would like to see them do a little better. That, I suppose, is why I am here.”
“Of the Six Nations teams, Scotland played a kind of rugby that was closest to the All Blacks. Rugby is evolving all the time, constantly evolving, people are bigger and stronger and standing up more. In the days when it was ruck and run, Scotland were one of the best teams at that. They had a very strong identity.”
Cotter offers little in the way of his own vision for Scotland going forward but, as he says above, that is a work in progress. Of course, the main difference between club and country coaching is that, in the former, you sign players whereas you select them for the latter (although given Scotland’s “project” players, even that distinction is blurred).
Scotland coaches have always worked with meagre rations but there are enough young players, Jonny Gray, Finn Russell, Alex Dunbar and Matt Scott among them, to give Cotter hope for a brighter future.
The Kiwi’s reluctance to pander to the press is refreshing because there is a “cult of coaches” taking grip in rugby, just as it has done in football and we journalists are guilty of perpetuating it. We invest too much emotional capital in the man at the top and then we demand his head when results go badly. It is a lot easier to be rude about a coach, who will probably be out of the door after two to four years, than it is to be brutally honest about a player who may be in and around the Scotland squad for a decade or longer.
Cotter appears to understand the problem and, at one point in the conversation, he insists: “I don’t have a copyright on what’s right and what’s wrong; I’m just going to try and do my best,” which could end up as his epitaph.
Perhaps the only time in the entire conversation when the coach sits up and engages with any real enthusiasm is on one thorny old subject, unity. It has been said before but Scotland is simply too small to compete unless the rugby community pulls the same way.
Scots are world beaters at pointing out what is wrong, they are somewhat down the rankings when it comes to accentuating the positives from any given situation. So when the Kiwi was quizzed about Mark Dodson’s rash statement that Scotland were targeting a win at RWC 2015, he defended his boss’s statement.
“That was just an expression of intent,” says Cotter. “Everyone in Scotland would like Scotland to win the World Cup. We have to start this week down that road in developing our game and people within the team will take responsibility.
“Enthusiasm is an important thing and I don’t mind that. What I do firmly believe is that everyone in Scotland must be together. It is not big enough. We can’t fight the whole world unless we are all together.
“That’s players, staff, press and fans. We’ve got to have a concentrated effort to move forward and do as best we can. I feel there is conflict and I don’t think we need that. We need to focus on what we want. We need a real group effort and get everybody on board and get as far as we can.”
Cotter is asked about next year’s World Cup and what would constitute success for Scotland? After being delayed in France for a year, after Clermont held him to his contract, the Kiwi has just 15 matches to mould this squad into shape and he was far too canny to be beholden to any rash promises made on the eve of his first Test today in Houston. In any case, just how much difference can one man make?
“I don’t know,” comes the response. “I haven’t really thought about it. You just try your best and be positive about what you do and get everybody on board.”