Vern Cotter: ‘We can almost weep’ when Craig Joubert is mentioned

Vern Cotter, the Montpellier head coach. Pic: David Rogers/Getty Images
Vern Cotter, the Montpellier head coach. Pic: David Rogers/Getty Images
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There is a scientific theory known as the “multiverse” which claims that rather than just the one universe there exists a huge number, possibly infinite, I am a little hazy on the details, of universes. Should such a theory prove correct then surely there exists at least one world where referee Craig Joubert made the correct call in that fateful Twickenham match against Australia and Vern Cotter led Scotland to the semi-finals of the 2015 Word Cup, possibly further.

Had such a thing happened, the gruff Kiwi coach would right now be planning Scotland’s busy autumn schedule but instead he is plotting Edinburgh’s downfall at the hands of his Montpellier in the Heineken Cup, as we are again allowed to call Europe’s premier club competition.

“There were things we can’t control on that day and they went against us,” he says. “It will forever be something that… it’s a disappointing emotion we all share within the changing room and as a country, the disappointing decision made by the referee and that, unfortunately, is rugby.

“And the what ifs… we can beat ourselves up about it but we can wistfully look at it and almost weep every time someone mentions it.” Cotter laughs at this point but without much mirth.

“We would have backed ourselves to beat Argentina in that semi-final,” he continues, “and it may have been extremely tough against the All Blacks if we’d got to the final but we know it was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

“The good thing is that Scotland is in a World Cup next year and, swings and roundabouts, hopefully there will be one of those calls that will go favourably and perhaps we will win but that is just the way it is.”

If being eased out of the Scotland post to make way for Gregor Townsend hurt Cotter, he did at least have the compensation of becoming the highest paid coach in world rugby. He receives a reported £800,000-odd per annum at Montpellier and he went some way towards justifying the spondulicks by taking his side to the final of the Top 14 at the first attempt, losing out to underdogs Castres.

Montpellier have had a slow start in Cotter’s second season, winning just three of their opening six matches but they have had an injury crisis which, unfortunately for Edinburgh, is drawing to a close.

“We started the season, our first three games, we had 13 of our first team players injured,” says Cotter. “Unfortunately with the length of the season and the off-season operations to players, they are generally out for a minimum of three months and with just six weeks between seasons you start a season without players.

“(Nemani) Nadolo is back, (Fulgence) Ouedraogo is back this weekend (on the exact weekend of his tenth anniversary with the club), Mikheil Nariashvili our loosehead prop back with us, we’ve got Alex Dumoulin the international centre back with us but Aaron Cruden unfortunately is still injured for the Edinburgh game. We’re getting a few back but we still have some to return but hopefully we’ll be competitive.”

This studied understatment is classic Cotter. We can safely say that Montpellier – whose €11.3 million spend on players is hard-up against the French salary cap – will be competitive at the Altrad Stadium on Saturday, even in the absence of Cruden. The former All Black was a marquee signing for Montpellier but the little stand-off has yet to show his best in the Top 14. A long-term calf injury has seen him sidelined and instead it is the South African utility back Johan Goosen who has been ripping up trees.

Goosen it was, if you remember, who “retired” from rugby in 2016 when Racing ’92 declined to release him from his contract so he could join Montpellier, and hightailed it back to South Africa where he took up a post as the commercial director of a horse stud farm in Bloemfontein. To no one’s great suprise the classy back un-retired early this year and got some time in the saddle with the Cheetahs before pitching up at… Montpellier! French papers reported that €1.4m changed hands and it looks like money well spent because Goosen has been a godsend for Cotter.

“They are different players,” says Cotter of his twin options at ten. “Aaron has been injured so we probably haven’t seen the best of him consistently. He’s been out and, a competitive young man, he wants to get back playing. He’s been plagued with recurring calf injuries and we are lucky to have Johan who can play anywhere. He can play 15, he can play 13 he can play 12 and at ten he brings all of his attacking qualities to the fore and he helps the team.

“At ten he has Ruan Pienaar at nine and he has Jan Serfontein outside him at 12 and we had Francois Steyn who has since been injured. These are players that know each other well, they all went to the same school together, [the famous Grey College in Bloemfontein must have had a decent back division] albeit at different times but they have a good understanding of the game and that makes it easier. No, Johan has been very good.”

Edinburgh must keep the tempo high on Saturday if they want to get anything from this match. Cotter highlights the difference between the Top 14, where ball-in-play time can be around the 32-35 minute mark and the Heineken Cup where fans can reasonably expect to see more than 40 minutes of action for their money. It doesn’t sound a huge difference but an additional five minutes of action is almost 15 per cent more than Montpellier’s big men are used to – so Edinburgh simply need to be patient and run through the phases, lots of phases.

Before they face Edinburgh, Cotter’s Montpellier side have to play Toulon this afternoon so the six-day turnaround is another factor in Edinburgh’s favour.

However, the Kiwi coach is not the sort to leave anything to chance. Cotter insists that he and his staff have been studying Edinburgh for months, fully aware of Richard Cockerill’s ability to rally his troops for the battle, even one that may look a little one-sided from the outside.

“We have been looking at them right from the start of the season,” says Cotter in his matter of fact manner.

“First of all they were in the pool so we had a look at them and when we heard that they were our first game we’ve been casting an eye over their performances. We know that they’ve got most of their key players back. They are very well organised. They’re good at ruck time, they defend reasonably well and they are a good team.

“Cockers will do a very good job of motivating them for the first big game in European competition. From an emotional point of view they will be very hard to knock over because they will be motivated and they will be up for it.

“We’re expecting a hard battle, set piece is good, we will try and find ways to get at them and score points but we are expecting a tough battle and by no means are we underestimating them.”