YOU have to think that Vern Cotter wants to give the World Cup a respectful burial, especially that agonising finale, but the Scottish press seem resolutely determined to reheat old beans and serve them up as steak regardless, with questions harking back rather than looking forward. If the journalists can afford to scratch that particular sore, Scotland’s coach definitely can’t.
Cotter himself was able to spend a rare Christmas in New Zealand on his Te Puki farm and however weary the players may feel after their European exertions, the coach at least looks refreshed and up for the war of the Six Nations.
The coach is fighting on several fronts, not least to keep expectations grounded and he is canny enough to avoid any talk of targets; from wooden spoon to champions in 12 short months would be some transformation. Whenever he is asked, Cotter sticks to his mantra of “improvement”… so long as the squad as a whole and the players individually are improving then he is happy.
“There is no magic wand,” he said last week. “There’s no guarantee we’re going to come and win all our games but we know that we’ll keep getting our head down, work hard and won’t make excuses. This group has got those traditional traits, those good Scottish traits. They’ve got big hearts, they’ve just got to be a little bit more accurate, grow our game and be comfortable with it.”
Big hearts will only take you so far, although no-one can deny the progress that Scotland made last season: winless in the Six Nations, they fetched up one minute away from the World Cup semi-final. The team did improve, hand over fist, although that was as much down to personnel changes as anything else.
If the Kiwi took one lesson from last season’s Six Nations it was that the Scots were not physical enough across the park. His team were bullied by pretty much everyone, including the Italians, and it hurt more than just their pride.
The influx of the foreigners, Josh Strauss, WP Nel and John Hardie, helped stiffen Scottish sinews during the World Cup but Cotter was again stressing the need to ratchet things up a notch or five for this coming campaign.
“I think the team is more physical while maintaining discipline,” said the Kiwi, “but I think we need to up that physicality. We need to lift that going into the Six Nations. If there is one thing we felt we didn’t have the year before, it was that physical nature. We worked hard over the World Cup period to get that.”
Cotter is already facing a dilemma because his favoured openside flankers John Hardie and Chris Fusaro are both destructive players.
To add some constructive, ball-playing, turnover specialists into the backrow mix the coach seems to be contemplating parking Blair Cowan or John Barclay at six but neither man is a big, physical beast. The coach wants his team to play rugby but knows they can’t do so if they lose all the big collisions. Should Cotter start the relatively slight figure of Cowan or Barclay at six, he is sure to have Adam Ashe or John Strauss sitting on the subs’ bench as insurance.
The availability of Alex Dunbar and Duncan Taylor, who both missed last year’s World Cup with injury, will add some much-needed physical presence to the back division which was Lilliputian in that quarter-final against Australia. That pair should shore up Scotland’s leaky defence, which has conceded nine tries in the past two internationals.
If you have forgotten that damning statistic you can bet anything that Eddie Jones hasn’t, and his England side won’t be shy about probing the chinks in Scotland’s armour in the Six Nations opener at BT Murrayfield, especially in the outside channels where Scotland are desperately short of cover, as Cotter concedes.
“With Tim Visser down, Sean Maitland with a hamstring, then does it open opportunities for a Glenn Bryce or players like that?” asked the coach rhetorically, before answering his own question. “It may do. At the moment we want to get these players in and have a full assessment of where they are and when they can play.
“Damien [Hoyland] started the Pro12 well and then fell off. I expect him to come through again. Tom Brown impressed us. Players like that, if they get back on the paddock and start playing, could push their way through.
“Damien is not far away. He’ll admit himself his recent performances haven’t been…” Cotter fails to finish the thought, “but we know he’ll come back as Tom Brown has. He showed us some good things before he got injured.”
Edinburgh winger Hoyland, who won his one cap in a World Cup warm-up against Italy, is probably the most promising of those that Cotter name- checked, but you wouldn’t want to risk rushing any of the above into the Six Nations proper. In fact this Scotland squad remains a young one that probably won’t be challenging for anything very much until they have earned another 15-30 caps per head.
“We’ve got a young first five. Finn [Russell] and Duncy [Weir] don’t have huge amounts of experience,” Cotter continued. “But they’re starting to learn how to control games. That’s really encouraging to see.
“I enjoy seeing those players get up and take responsibility, start controlling games and bossing the game around. That’s what we need, and that’s what we’re trying to encourage them to do.
“Making mistakes is part of that as well, but there’s such a desire to improve in those areas from everybody. Stuart Hogg is coming on in that regard, Grant Gilchrist, Jonny Gray up front is starting to get used to these games where the minor thing counts, against you and for you.
“Those are the type of things we’re developing within the group, and it’s a long-term thing. It’s a matter of keeping an open mind, and the knocks and bumps and bruises we get along the way, we make use of them. It’s not always going to be easy.”
This is the Six Nations, it’s not meant to be.