SINCE arriving in Scotland, Vern Cotter has always come across as a man with his feet planted squarely on terra firma. It is a personality trait that must have proved useful in the wake of Scotland’s 22-19 defeat by Italy on Saturday, a desperate result that would have left any coach of less resolute character questioning his sanity in accepting the post and plotting his escape out of the country on the next available flight.
Perhaps, with Scottish rugby having been starved of success for so long, we greedily tend to overestimate any grounds for optimism. Perhaps only now, with a thoroughly competent coach at the helm of the national side, are we beginning to comprehend the true depth of the malaise.
After a period in which Scotland could go through whole seasons with hardly a try to their name, the Autumn Tests came as welcome relief. The bright sparks that illuminated those three matches have not been entirely snuffed out, but, after the losses to France and Wales, and, above all, the weekend’s humiliation by the Italians, we surely need to recognise that they are no more than chinks of light. The overall picture remains gloomy and grey.
To his credit, Cotter showed not a hint of getting carried away by the November wins over Argentina and Tonga. Similarly, on Saturday evening at Murrayfield he refused to give vent in public to the frustration he must have felt as the wheels fell off his team.
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Long-suffering supporters had the luxury of asking themselves if this result left them feeling worse than any other they had seen. Cotter, by contrast, insisted that some aspects of play had definitely improved since he took up the reins last summer, and stated what was obvious to everyone within the ground: that other elements remain woefully short of where they should be.
“I never expected it to be easy,” the New Zealander said when asked if his job looks tougher now than it did after those autumn victories. “Although we dislike losses, especially ones of this manner, it will be used to move us forward. There will be some important facts taken from the game.
“I’m not panicking. We don’t like losing, but there were some valuable experiences taken by players who haven’t played a lot of Test rugby. I think it will be important for them, because they’re honest, hard-working players.
“They’re very proud to put the jersey on, so they’re disappointed. Those will be motivating factors and, as soon as we address a couple of things and act on them, I think we’ll get a shift forward.
“There has been a shift forward in our attack. We need to work on our defence as well to make sure we’re very accurate.
“We led the whole game. Obviously it’s disappointing to lose it at the end, through perhaps our own errors. If we address those errors it is an opportunity to change them.”
Aware that his team are at a very early stage of their development, Cotter deliberately sugars the pill when analysing their shortcomings. Hence the phrase “perhaps our own errors” when there was no doubt that Scotland contributed massively to their own downfall. Hence, too, the emphasis on the chance to improve.
If he had more able and experienced players, Cotter would be altogether less forgiving of some of the naive mistakes we saw on Saturday. But he has to work with the materials at hand, and, while Finn Russell will be available again after suspension and the likes of David Denton and Adam Ashe should be back from injury, the squad of 23 to face England on Saturday week will include the vast majority who were involved at the weekend.
The coach knows there is no quick, permanent fix. But he also knows that unless he makes some rapid running repairs, Twickenham could become a painfully unforgiving arena for his team. “If we don’t address a couple of issues at lineouts – and they will be addressed with brutal honesty next week – England will see that as an opportunity to move forward,” he added. “They have a big heavy pack as well. We know we don’t have a big pack of forwards, so, technically, we’ll have to find a way through some difficult situations a team may put us in. There are things that we’ll address and I’m sure we’ll see improvement.”
Loosehead prop Alasdair Dickinson offered a similar assessment of the team’s next game, emphasising the need to remain hopeful while acknowledging the scale of the task that awaits in London. “We have two weeks to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off and we have a massive challenge in England,” he said.
“It’s tough when you don’t get a win, especially the first two games that we could have won. It’s tough to take, but you can’t let these negative things affect you. You have to go down there and be positive we can win. It will be huge for England, as they’re flying high at the moment, but who knows what will happen? It’s Scotland v England. It’s going to be brutal and a big physical game, and we have two weeks to rectify what we need to rectify.”
After some 15 years of decline, two weeks is no time at all. You have to fear for Scotland at Twickenham – but hope that Cotter, somehow, can impose some order on a team who, at the end of Saturday’s match, looked a very bedraggled bunch.