Historians love to delve into the “what if… ” scenario. You know the picture, Hitler won the war, jackboots on Whitehall, we all speak German (badly, I assume) and there was no vote on the European Union, or on anything else for that matter
So let’s play the same game and pretend that South African referee Craig Joubert did not make the worst howler of his professional career almost exactly one year ago. Scotland have to defend a scrum against the Wallabies but with one minute left on the clock they hold firm and they are through to the World Cup semi-final where they lose a gutsy game to Argentina.
Michael Cheika is handed his jotters but having taken Scotland one step from the World Cup final there is no way on earth that Mark Dodson can do the same to Vern Cotter who is, instead, rewarded with a contract extension to RWC’19. Gregor Townsend gnashes his teeth and stays at Glasgow and the umpteen journalists who appear at last week’s squad announcement pose questions about the Scotland team rather than Cotter’s emotional well being.
And on that score you can rest easy. The Kiwi coach could have hosted the press conference in a hot tub he was so relaxed and why shouldn’t he be? He has eight games left and if he wins every one he will leave Dodson looking stupid. If Scotland lose every game, well, Cotter will still become the highest paid coach in the game with a Montpellier contract tucked under his mattress that reputedly guarantees him a handy €2.5 million over three years. Someone has made a mistake.
Either Cotter is worth the huge sums mentioned, and Dodson has allowed the best coach around to slip the lead, or he isn’t, and Montpellier’s owner Mohed Altrad has more money than sense. We will see.
Certainly Cotter is up against it this November especially in that emotional opener against Australia who will also arrive with a point to prove. Cotter referenced last season’s Six Nations opener against England when a series of calamitous Scottish mistakes cost his side at a time when Eddie Jones had not yet had the time to make his mark with his new team.
“If we look back at our first game in the Six Nations, which was against England, which we’ve analysed, and what we didn’t get right, we’re looking at how we try to make sure we got those things right against Australia – that we keep our shape in attack, our defence stays in place, we make good decisions and maintain an 80-minute effort.”
The Kiwi coach also made repeated mention of the game’s “core principles”… which may be because they are keeping him awake at night. Cotter has a full-blown front-row crisis on its hands. WP Nel is out for a month and will miss the whole autumn series and that sound you can hear is Wallaby loosehead Scott Sio breathing a sigh of relief because Nel gave him a hurry up in that World Cup quarter. Alasdair Dickinson hasn’t played in months and there is no guarantee that he will be ready for the autumns. Rory Sutherland has injured his groin and won’t play any part nor will Ryan Grant who is struggling with a bad back.
Gordon Reid is another nursing his back (depending on who you listen to) but he may have to be patched up and sent out to play. Allan Dell is grateful when he gets a start for Edinburgh never mind Scotland and the third choice loosehead at club level could become Scotland’s first port of call in the injury storm that is brewing.
All of which leaves Moray Low, a tighthead by trade who has been playing loosehead for the Chiefs, and twenty-year old Zander Fagerson who is highly rated but just out of nappies by front-row standards.
In fact there are several players with hopes of starting against Australia who are short of a gallop; Dickinson, Peter Horne, Tommy Seymour although he started on Friday evening, Richie Gray, Duncan Taylor and John Hardie who has been overlooked in favour of Hamish Watson at Edinburgh although Cotter made it clear that the roles would be reversed at national level.
“John (Hardie) loves Test match footy,” said the Scotland coach, “they all do but when we look at our opensides we feel that if John does go down Hamish (Watson) is best suited to take his place. His game has developed.”
Cotter was instrumental in bringing Hardie to Scotland which may cause him to favour his Kiwi compatriot because Watson is playing the best rugby if his life right now.
Incidentally Cotter also talked of a Scottish qualified, Waratahs’ breakaway who goes by the name of Jack Dempsey (cue gags about punching above his weight) although no one seems to know if he’s interested in swapping Sydney for Scotstoun.
If you take Cotter at face value the number seven jersey is wrapped up so that leaves just another 14 players to find, although we can probably pencil Stuart Hogg in at 15 since he is the only fullback listed in the squad. In similar fashion the number ten jersey is Finn Russell’s for the asking of it, although Horne is lumped beside his Glasgow colleague as a stand-off rather than a centre.
If competition for places is the driver of success then Scotland are still struggling for depth in certain positions. Blair Kinghorn is the coming man, and since he covers both ten and 15 he would appear to be the ideal candidate, but Cotter declared that he was not going to rush the teenager who doesn’t turn 20 until January.
It’s either feast or famine because the coach is spoilt for choice in the midfield, able to ignore the talents of Matt Scott who has been on decent form in a struggling Gloucester team. Huw Jones’ Currie Cup adventure ended a fortnight back when Western Province lost to the Bulls and he is a ready made alternative at 13 should Saracens’ Duncan Taylor fail to recover in time, with Alex Dunbar the first choice inside centre.
Tommy Seymour has done enough over the years to claim his place on one wing and the other becomes a battle between two London exiles, Sean Maitland and Tim Visser. Both men are on good form and both have been scoring tries, with Maitland possibly a short nose in front inside the final furlong.
But almost inevitably the conversation in the conference harked back to the elephant in the room and whether the players would rouse themselves for a coach whose days are numbered.
“The elephant is obviously in the room so we’ll talk about it,” he said. “It will be one of the first conversation we have on Sunday night when we come in, but this is an opportunity for the players to be selected, and be re-selected for the Six Nations, to perform well, and this group finishes at the end of the Six Nations, against Italy, next year so we will maintain our standards, develop our game, try to improve because that’s our driving force, and then analyse it at the end of it and hopefully hand the keys over saying ‘that was a job well done’.
“I think the culture within the side, the respect they have for the jersey and the role of representing Scotland is such that I don’t think they’ll feel that. There’s too much respect for what the jersey represents. We set high standards, the players set high standards and I think they’ll be maintained all the way through. I don’t believe there will be a problem because there’s so much at stake.”
Despite his crisis, Cotter was still able to joke about WP Nel’s injury – “we didn’t know he had a neck” – and when asked about his own emotions on losing the Scotland gig he responded in similar fashion: “I am not known for my emotion”.
The Kiwi was then quizzed about the legacy he wanted to leave and reverted to type.
“I struggle with that,” said Cotter. “I look at the bigger picture. I don’t like ‘this is me, this is my legacy’. The whole game has been played in this country for over 100 years and there are a lot of great people that have gone before, and I just want to focus on what can be done and not get caught up in that.
“I want to stick to the real things and the real things for me are playing Australia in the next few weeks, making sure our scrum and lineout is good, our defence and attack is coherent. That’s what I’m focused on.”
Especially, you suspect, that problematic scrum.