Vern Cotter relishing return to Scotland – but wary of Glasgow

Vern Cotter has guided Montpellier to the summit of the Top 14. Pic: Pascal Guyoy AFP/Getty Images)
Vern Cotter has guided Montpellier to the summit of the Top 14. Pic: Pascal Guyoy AFP/Getty Images)
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Vern Cotter returns to Scotland this week for the first time since being shown the Murrayfield exit when his Montpellier Herault side face Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun on Friday evening in the first of twin, back-to-back fixtures that will determine whether either club – both are winless in Europe – has any prospect of progress.

He hasn’t always been a ray of summer sunshine but the gruff Kiwi is in fine fettle when I call him in France. He cracks jokes, swaps banter and reveals more in a 20-minute call than he managed in three years as Scotland coach, speaking with an ease which we rarely witnessed.

Finn Russell is heading for France next season

Finn Russell is heading for France next season

Cotter has good reason to be content. Murrayfield’s hierarchy may not have shown him much love but Montpellier’s wealthy Syrian-born backer Mohed Altrad made him an offer he couldn’t refuse and the Kiwi is now said to be the highest paid coach in world rugby, earning in the region of £720,000 per annum.

He has spent 18 years of his adult life in France, his daughter was born there and he has returned to the country that has always appeared to be his spiritual home; a manager runs the family farm in Te Puke, North Island on his behalf.

Furthermore, things are going swimmingly on the field. Ahead of yesterday’s crunch game against second-placed Stade Rochelais, Montpellier led the Top 14 with eight wins from 11 outings having scored more points than any other team in the league.

Everything, I dare to suggest, is going according to plan?

“Not after last weekend’s game!” he says with mock incredulity. “We were beaten 26-0. Bizarrely we play a game of that quality but are still first!

“We went up to Racing and played at 12.30 in the afternoon and didn’t get out of bed. We didn’t wake up until the 56th minute and by that time it was too late. The disappointing thing from our perspective was that we didn’t score a point… 26-0… there are no excuses, we just get on with it.

“Racing beat us by 26 points and last year Glasgow went and beat them by throwing the ball around so it doesn’t look good for our trip to Glasgow!”

Cotter has the good grace to laugh out loud at his less than scientific dissection of Friday’s encounter. He has met Dave Rennie a couple of times and the pair of them cracked heads as players in the old NPC when Cotter was turning out for Bay of Plenty and his Glasgow rival was sporting Wellington colours, but there is no disguising the respect he has for his fellow Kiwi and the pair of them could yet be rivals for that All Blacks spot.

“I have met the man a couple of times,” says Cotter of Rennie, “his record speaks for itself. I do have Aaron Cruden [at Montpellier] who was his right hand man for many years [at the Chiefs], so there is a bit of an insight to him there but he’s a very good coach and he’s got good coaches with him.”

Rennie’s assistants, Jason O’Halloran and Jon Humphreys, were hand-picked by Cotter whilst at Scotland, although the Kiwi laughs it off when I mention as much.

“We are very aware that we are going to Glasgow to play on a plastic field and that plays differently,” he says, complaining that Montpellier’s own artificial training pitch is first generation. “Teams train to play on them differently. You go from a three-second ruck to a two-second ruck. People can get off the ground easier so if you don’t keep fighting they are going to get back up and run off again. There are a few things to tweak.

“We are looking forward to a game against Glasgow for a number of reasons. It is going to expose something different. A team that is going to play quickly, a team that has got tougher at the breakdown with a little bit of experience.

“We have three points and you never know? So if we go over there and have a crack… which is what I think we will try and do because if we go over there half-arsed we will get beaten quite severely. So if we give it a crack and win that means we get another chance of four or five points a week later and we could possibly qualify.

“It’ll be a fast-paced game and they will move the ball wide. They are smart and they will have seen our profile, they know there are opportunities against us and we’ll try and shut them down as best we can. But we know that the ball will be moved quickly from all situations, that the ruck speed will increase so being aware with the ball in motion will be important.

“What are our strengths? If you look at what Leinster did to Glasgow in their European games that gives us a bit of a blueprint of how to try and take them but like I say ‘try’, because they’ve won so many games.”

One of the reasons is Finn Russell who is in imperious form. Cotter admits that he spoke to the stand-off about moving to France but by the time the Scot was ready to jump, Montpellier had already secured All Black Cruden. The Scot announced only last week that he would join Racing ’92 in the summer and his former coach insists that the 25-year-old Russell will thrive in the Top 14.

“I spoke to the Racing coaches last week when we played them and they are obviously very excited for a number of reasons,” says Cotter. “Their new arena, where the French played Japan last week, has a plastic pitch and they are excited to have Finn because he knows how to play on those types of pitches and because of the exciting way he plays.

“Advice for Finn? He’s a great player, he’s a great man, he’ll enjoy himself and he’ll bring a lot to that team. Unfortunately he’s going to be up against us!”

Presumably some of the Neanderthals that inhabit France’s Top 14 will target the slight Scot?

“I don’t know,” replies Cotter. “The Top 14 is more physical than the Premiership or the Pro14. It is more physical and the players are bigger. Rugby is played in a pragmatic way…except for a number of teams.

“At the bottom of the table you are fighting to survive which perhaps means that some strategies are devised to take out key players and it becomes a war of survival which brings out, as we know, human instinct and it’s human nature to start to get a little bit nastier.

“I think he’s too creative to be worried about that. I think he’s too skilful. He’ll have a very strong team. Racing have the strongest squad in France, them and Clermont. So he’s is going to be looked after by a big powerful forward pack. The forwards coach Chris Masoe will make sure his forwards look after him. No, he’ll be fine. His biggest danger is going to be living in Paris itself!”

Cotter has his hands full. He is attempting to set up a new academy to bring through local talent while reconciling cultural divides between Montpellier’s French and South African contingents (there are nine Saffas, a legacy of Jake White’s time at the club).

He missed the autumn internationals because of club commitments but, having laid the foundations, Cotter must have felt a frisson of pride when he clocked Scotland’s recent scores against New Zealand and especially Australia?

“We were just proud to be part of Scottish rugby for three years and it’s great to see it continue to improve,” he replies. “There was a little bit of pride but mostly we were just ‘wrapped’ for everybody. It’s just a great thing.”

Cotter has always seemed most comfortable in France, Montpellier has had three days rain in six months, his wife and kids enjoy being back and you suspect that fact alone means far more to him than the money.

“The south of France is a nice place. We are very much at ease here,” says one contented Kiwi. “It’s a frustrating country as we know. They [the French] are always unhappy and they always have an opinion on something. They are a funny bunch and they are a charming lot as well.”

Little wonder the Kiwi feels at home in France, Cotter could have been describing himself.