Six Nations: Vern Cotter encouraged by spirit

IT WAS interesting listening to the French speaking after the game, in which they failed to score a single try. Both coach Philippe Saint-André and substitute scrum-half Morgan Parra said that, if they could win every match of the tournament in similar fashion, they would go to sleep with a smile on their face.
Coach Vern Cotter praised his players' defence and attack. Picture: GettyCoach Vern Cotter praised his players' defence and attack. Picture: Getty
Coach Vern Cotter praised his players' defence and attack. Picture: Getty

They were only voicing exactly what Vern Cotter would have said had the roles been reversed. The big Kiwi is an honorary Frenchmen after spending 17 years of his life there, more than the three South African players in the French team combined, and he replied in fluent French to several question from the host journalists.



“It was great coming back here,” Cotter said. “The last time I was here we won the Top 14. A lot of things have happened since. I like France, I spent 17 years here. My kids went to French schools and they speak French. It’s nice coming back.”

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It would have been even nicer had Scotland found a way to win. He was, he insisted, proud of how his team had held on to the French coat-tails when they threatened to cut loose in the second half. The Scots actually edged the territory and possession stats in the first 40 but France enjoyed 58 per cent of possession and 66 per cent of territory after the break, not least because they whistled up some giant replacements off the bench; Romain Taofifenua (135kg/21 stones) and Uini Atonio (145kgs/23st) the duo who did the most damage.

“It was a tough game, physically tough,” Cotter conceded. “We didn’t weigh as much as them, we weren’t as heavy. But we made up for it by running round the paddock, being mobile, and that’s something we have to believe in.

“They certainly have some big guys. We will be looking to see how we can perform better in contact. All the guys are so disappointed that we lost ball in contact.

“Starting in France, in the first game of the six Nations, was tough, but the guys stood up and they weren’t intimidated. But they’ll want to do better next week. It’s a starting point.”

International rugby is becoming an arms race and there is a danger that Scotland are seriously out-gunned, pitting a pea-shooter against some big bazookas. Jonny Gray is not small by any stretch of the imagination but he was giving up two centimetres in height and over two stones in weight when Taofifenua took the field. The All Blacks have the same problem every time they play against South Africa (and, to a lesser extent, England) but somehow they circumvent the issue with a mixture of skill, tactical acumen and brilliant conditioning that the Scots must attempt to emulate.

Blair Cowan, who had been so effective in his last outing against Tonga, was overwhelmed by a tsunami of red shirts who simply blitzed him off the ball. He won one important turnover from Mathieu Bastareaud but it is difficult remember him doing very much else. According to the official statistics, the Scots coughed up 17 turnovers in all, many of them at the breakdown, and the majority of them in the Scottish half of the field.

For all that, Cotter declared himself satisfied with the effort and attitude his players displayed, since they had defended bravely and always looked ready to attack when the opportunity arose.

Opportunities were rare in the second half but there were several moments in the first period when a little more composure might have seen the Scots take the lead.

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“The guys were having a go,” said Cotter. “They grabbed the ball and ran with it. We found ourselves in situations where we got over the advantage line but will we need to keep believing and not be surprised if things unfold in front of us favourably and go through and finish.

“Some of the essentials of the game, scrum and lineout, I thought were good. I thought our defence was good. We scored a try. We surprised ourselves by getting into situations, or put ourselves under pressure by not keeping to certain things that we probably haven’t practised enough.”

There are injury concerns over several players which need to be addressed before Cotter can name a team to take on Wales. Tommy Seymour and Alex Dunbar are the most serious but Geoff Cross, Alasdair Strokosch, Mark Bennett and Rob Harley were also in the wars. He had watched the Wales game but Cotter claimed he wouldn’t be setting too much store by it.

“Next week’s game won’t be the same as this one,” said the Kiwi. “We will have to develop something to surprise the Welsh. They will have watched our game, we have watched theirs. Both teams will be coming in after defeats so it will be tense. It’s just about rolling our sleeves up again.”