AFTER several weeks of speculation a new coach was finally unveiled last week.
So congratulations to former Melrose man Carl Hogg who is Worcester Warriors’ boss. That news broke one day after the New Zealander Vern Cotter was unveiled to the media at Murrayfield and immediately blindsided by the news that his Clermont club president had announced his (Cotter’s) resignation. The new Scotland head coach insisted otherwise. However, when he was quizzed on whether his club knew that he was being introduced to Scottish rugby on Wednesday afternoon complete with the obligatory photoshoot in the blue tracksuit, the Kiwi replied: “No they don’t, no they don’t.”
If Cotter wanted out of Clermont one year before his contract ends then unexpectedly showing up at Murrayfield with a white thistle on his chest after writing an article criticising Clermont’s recruitment (or lack of it) would be a handy way to go about it. Against that, he made the following mea culpa to the press upon his return to France which appears to be an exercise in bridge building. “Things are not exactly what I’d like them to be. The season finished in frustration. I wanted to communicate, I think it’s important that everyone is kept up to date. There are many key players at risk of leaving [Clermont] next year. Have I been clumsy? Certainly. Have I made mistakes? It would seem so and not for the first time this season.”
Cotter had a meeting with club president Rene Fontes yesterday, the result of which is not yet known but the fact that another foreign coach is in at Murrayfield, or will be when the dust finally settles, should surprise no one because there were no genuine homegrown candidates.
Sitting alongside the Kiwi coach, Scottish rugby now has an Australian director of rugby in Scott Johnson who has been in the country for just one year and a Welsh forwards coach, Jonathan Humphreys, whose main qualification for the job appears to be that he worked alongside Johnson at the Ospreys.
Johnson’s original remit was to nurture and promote Scottish coaches, which makes Humphreys appointment all the more bewildering, although there is no such confusion when it comes to Johnson’s own promotion to director of rugby which was apparently made on the hearty recommendation of… Scott Johnson.
At least the garrulous Aussie seems to have found a good ’un in Cotter who, in turn, seems to know and value Scottish rugby’s history and heritage. Asked what had attracted him to Murrayfield in the first place the Kiwi pointed to two Scots at Clermont as a handy starting point. He said: “I was really impressed with Jason [White] in the three years he was there with me, magnificent warrior. I liked him because he was a soldier, a great leader as well, he typified what was great about traditional Scottish rugby. And Nathan [Hines], he’s my right-hand man at Clermont. He’s a bit long in the tooth but crikey he can still play a good game of rugby. He really enjoyed his time with the Scottish team and spoke very highly of the experience. Both those guys really helped me make my decision.”
Cotter spoke at some length about his admiration in the past for the passion that the Scots brought to the game, especially breakaways such as John Jeffrey and Fin Calder, whom he remembered vividly from his youth. He sees something of the same in the current group of Scotland players, although it’s a pretty safe bet that he didn’t witness last year’s débâcles in Rome or Aberdeen. Cotter added: “You are looking at a team that shows character and that’s really important. They defended really well, they are pragmatic, they are really working hard on the basics of the game, scrum, ruck, contact. So it was exciting to see the team perform as well as they did and there is obvious potential to make them perform better otherwise Scotty [Johnson] and I probably wouldn’t be in this room.
“I like teams with guts, a bit of heart, character who get up and have a go. It’s always appealed to me Scotland, for that reason. There are some very good players in the Scottish team, there are some good thinkers,” Cotter continued. “[Greig] Laidlaw is a good thinker, you have a really good front row, you have the basics of a team, and they are working at what makes them perform and perform better as well. When the collective starts working then the individuals will come out and bring things perhaps we hadn’t seen or offer something to the team, give it another dimension. Those are things that we will be looking at.”
As things stand Cotter will have just one year to make his mark on this squad of players before the 2015 Rugby World Cup is upon us (the one that SRU chief executive Mark Dodson has targeted winning, in case you had forgotten). It’s a punishingly short time to explore the squad’s potential, never mind unlock it. If everything goes swimmingly, and almost everyone expects Cotter to start sooner rather than later, how far can Scotland go in the next World Cup?
“You go into every game to win,” is the Kiwi’s first answer. “I’m not trying to move away from the responsibility to win but the most importing thing is to get the best performance you can every time you are on the paddock and, if you do that, then you are going to win games and, if you start winning, you start moving up so the most important thing is to really, really look at the team’s performance and how to get the best performance out of the group every time.
“We don’t enter a competition without being ambitious, we don’t enter a competition without wanting to win it so I’d like to use the get-up-and-go as best we can. You don’t know; we could surprise ourselves.”