VERN Cotter could become the new Scotland head coach as early as next week with his club Clermont Auvergne calling a board meeting to discuss a sudden burst of anger at the New Zealander.
Cotter’s future appointment descended into further farce yesterday when what was supposed to be his official, if early, welcome to Murrayfield left him on the back foot, shocked and denying that he had resigned from the French club.
He had already conducted a number of broadcast interviews, including giving his thoughts to Scotsman.com, when news emerged from France that Clermont Auvergne President Rene Fontes had announced that Cotter had offered his resignation.
Fontes was the man who took Cotter to France in 2006 and the pair developed a close relationship. Fontes is due to stand down from his position at Clermont next week but, in a statement issued by the Clermont club, Fontes reacted angrily to comments from Cotter in the local newspaper, La Montagne, which were critical of leadership by senior players and called for the club to invest in “marquee” names to compete with the likes of Toulon and Racing Metro.
Montes said: “I learned today of the interview given by Vern Cotter to the press. The words of our coach stunned and deeply disappointed me. These were the opposite of his usual attitude towards our players and our club. This same day, after his statement, Vern offered his resignation. I have taken note of the proposal and agreed with Eric de Cromières to convene a board of directors of the club will be held on Monday, June 3, to decide on this.”
This was put to Cotter at the start of his conference with the written Press and he insisted he had no idea what Montes was talking about.
Cotter said: “I am unaware of that. I have not offered my resignation. I put an article in this morning’s paper saying how I hoped the club should move forward and I have had no communication since then.
“I now need to have more understanding of what has been said by my president. The last conversation I had with Rene Fontes he was asking me to finish my contract in 2014. I just gave an honest opinion of how I thought things had to move forward, holistically, so they could see the big picture, they could see how competitive, how hard French Top 14 rugby is, and how the club has to move forward, especially after 2014.
“This is quite often what happens in France. These things become emotional. I need to see what’s been said and how it’s been interpreted, and I’ll be very quickly conversing with them.
“These things blow up in France quite often but is there a strategy [to dismiss Cotter], following discussions we had earlier? This is something I really need to look at.” Cotter was then asked for his thoughts on whether his comments, which also questioned the game management of senior players in the Heineken Cup Final defeat to Toulon and referred to slow recruitment of players, could be viewed as a deliberate attempt to force Clermont to release him from his contract early.
He appeared shocked and said: “It was honest and my vision of how they had to move forward in a competitive competition.
“You [the Press] have bluffed me a bit with this information. I can’t comment further on that until I get reaction and a full picture of what reaction there has been to a simple article in the local newspaper.”
The interview does appear to be typical Cotter, straightforward in identifying failures in his team’s displays against Toulon and also in their Top 14 semi-final loss to Castres, as well as pointing the finger at himself.
He expanded on the main theme yesterday by insisting that Clermont lacked players of the quality of Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Giteau and Jonny Sexton, the first two being among Toulon’s renowned high-earners with salaries heading towards £1million a year, and Sexton understood to be earning around £500,000 at Racing next season.
Clermont have a policy of building from within and only signing one or two players each summer. But they have become a leading club by bringing through world-class performers such as Aurelien Rougerie, Wesley Fofana and Julien Malzieu and adding class acts in French caps Morgan Parra, David Skrela and Julien Bonnaire, as well as Lee Byrne from Wales, Scots Jason White and Nathan Hines, All Black wing Sitiveni Sivivatu and Fijian Napolioni Nalanga.
Yet, Cotter added: “I said the club needed to invest like other clubs, in the same way that Toulon and Racing were investing, in that they had marquee players. If the current policy of not looking for a marquee player in a key position continues, then they could risk being overtaken very quickly in a very, very competitive environment.
“There are no marquee players at Clermont. I’ll be honest with you, all the players are based on tiers of ability. If you look at bringing a Matt Giteau, a Jonny Wilkinson or a Jonny Sexton... Clermont haven’t gone down that road.”
Those who watched how Clermont made poor decisions in the final quarter of the Heineken Cup Final would probably agree that had they had any of that trio, they would have won the game. Cotter was deeply hurt by that loss and that would appear to have fuelled his comments.
The defeats and this latest row, however, is bound to harm his legendary status in the Auvergne.
Supporters launched a petition yesterday seeming to back him, pressing for investment to allow Clermont to stop being “nice losers” and become “a machine, winning titles”. That may only increase the pressure on the club’s new president to make a change, and Scotland may then have their man sooner than June 2014, and at no cost if his ties to Clermont are cut by the French club on Monday.
If that turns out to be the case, Cotter would still not travel to South Africa, where Scotland are heading this weekend for a quadrangular tournament, as he has a long-awaited holiday back in his native New Zealand booked for June with his wife and three children.
As for what he expects, Cotter remained baffled. “I just have to see what reaction there has been, what has been said. I am very unaware. What I said – I repeat that to make it very clear – was for the interests of the club. It was probably something they were surprised to see but rugby in France is changing very, very quickly and, if you want to be competitive, if you want to stay in the top, if you want to win your games, you sometimes have to make decisions and change policy and that was the only reason for that article because I was intending to stay next year.
“I am going to find out exactly what has happened. It is interesting because conversations have already been held with the club for an early release – or not an early release, but a start [with Scotland] this year  – but that is not associated [with this row] unless they have taken the initiative to associate it.
“My intention is to stay [at Clermont]. I need to get a little bit more information. Even in the article in today’s paper I said I was looking forward to another year.”