Cotter puts squad through their paces in Pyrenees
“Going out of your comfort zone” usually means training harder or applying new techniques and methods on the field to shake things up out of the usual routine. Being left to fend for yourself on a freezing Pyrenean mountain-top, scavenging firewood and relying on team-mates’ bodyheat to keep warm, brings new meaning to that oft-used sporting cliche.
Scotland head coach Vern Cotter hopes experiences like the one with French Commandos here on the Franco-Spanish border will be ones that bind his squad together and set the tone for the build-up to the World Cup in England come September.
The Scottish squad have spent the past few days at the spartan CREPS (Centre de Recherche et d’Expertise de la Performance Sportive) facility, not far from the picturesque, if unflashy, ski resort of Font Romeu, working on strength, conditioning and team bonding.
The high-altitude aspect of the venue is not of specific relevance – after all the nearest to high ground they are likely to experience during the tournament itself is through the Lake District on the M6 down to Gloucester, where they play their opening pool match against Japan.
The thin air, which you feel even more on the short climb from Font Romeu to the training base, may be crucial for the preparations of a certain Mo Farah, who has been spotted pounding the track around the pitch being used by the squad and attracting interest from media beyond the Scottish rugby press.
The altitude just makes everything a bit more laboured and challenging, which is what Cotter wants as he assesses character as much as talent at the start of the road to the World Cup.
Asked if he was happy with how things have gone at the base, where they have been since last Thursday, Cotter replied: “Yes I am. I’m always thinking of how to make things better, but I think the players have really put the effort in. Today is a tough day and we’ve been going for seven days now. This is where the character kicks in and people have to stick in and look at their improvements.
“I feel that the players have stepped up. Today will be tough then tomorrow [Tuesday] there will be a bit of a drop off and they’ll go into recovery.
“The altitude makes it hard, even for us [coaching staff] walking up and down the stairs. But I’ve really enjoyed it and been very pleased with the way the players have taken to their tasks.”
Today the squad descends back to sea level for a couple of days in Perpignan, which will see a much-anticipated return to more comfortable beds and some rest. There is still work today, however, including sessions with the French Marines and Navy.
Cotter said he was pleased with the way both senior and less-experienced members of the pool had bought in to what he was trying to achieve with this trip.
“It’s been a good mix,” said the 53-year-old. “They’ve all chipped in and rolled their sleeves up and now we keep moving through and moving upwards towards the World Cup.
“I take my hat off to the strength and conditioning guys, who have done a great job, and the medical staff who have had to work. We’ve been doing a bit of cross training with judo and wrestling, which some of the players aren’t used to and we’ve had sprained toes and other injuries we’re not used to.”
With reference to that gruelling night up the mountain – which you get the feeling will be talked about and reminisced over by those players who toughed it out for many years – Cotter was asked if he felt it was a useful exercise in gauging the characters of those who took part.
“I think it’s important for players to get to know each other,” was the Kiwi’s response. “The group had just come together [into training camp]. You put them into a little bit of difficulty… they had to chip in with the firewood to cook food and organise themselves in four different groups. Within those groups they had to work and help each other. It’s a good starting point.
“It’s those types of challenge, when you’re challenged mentally and physically, that you’ve got to find the resources to stay positive and keep moving while still focusing on your objective and understand that what we are looking at is a World Cup – a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for some.
“That day we know we won’t have again. Time is our enemy and we have to maximise to get in the best position possible.”
You sense that, here in Font Romeu, a base camp has been established by Scotland, and now the long climb towards the World Cup begins in earnest.