After an inauspicious start, departing Kiwi boasts the best figures of any modern Scotland coach, writes Iain Morrison
Vern Cotter’s tenure as Scotland coach did not get off to the most promising of starts. The Kiwi was unveiled as national coach in May 2013, giving him enough time to get his feet under the desk ahead of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, or so everyone thought.
However, the first Clermont learned of the appointment was when Cotter appeared on French television sporting a white thistle on his blue shirt; evidently no-one at the SRU had thought to ask Clermont if they would release the Kiwi who was contracted until the end of the following season. They chose not to, or perhaps SRU chief Mark Dodson declined to pay the asking price.
If Cotter was put out by this mistake he kept his thoughts to himself; he had enough on his plate after eventually inheriting a punishing Test schedule that had been organised long before he arrived. In the space of four weeks Scotland were obliged to play four nations in three continents with seven flights and tens of thousands of air miles. Little wonder the Springboks match in Port Elizabeth proved a game too far as Scotland went down 55-6.
Redemption arrived a few months later in Cotter’s first match at Murrayfield when, with almost everyone available, his team scored five tries against Argentina, the first time Scotland had managed that feat against a tier one nation since 2007. It was the re-birth of Scotland as an attacking force and the Kiwi has remained true to those instincts throughout.
First impressions are always important and first impressions of the new man were favourable. Cotter was not in the habit of using two words where one would do, but since his immediate predecessor didn’t know when to shut his yap, that reticence was considered a blessing.
Oddly enough for a big, tough Kiwi farmer with a stern reputation to uphold, Cotter was remarkably thin skinned. He read almost everything written about him or his team in the papers and hauled journalists over the coals if he didn’t agree with them.
There was a feeling amongst the Scottish journalists that Cotter sometimes said as little as he could, possibly as payback for the bricks lobbed his way after a whitewash in his opening Six Nations. This impression was underlined when he would blether happily to visiting French journalists. He has been a little more forthcoming in this, his au revoir season.
On occasion he rode his luck. Scotland needed late penalties to win narrow Tests against Canada and Argentina (twice) both in Cordoba and Edinburgh.
More important was Cotter’s good fortune when it came to picking his captain. In October 2014 the coach appointed Edinburgh’s Grant Gilchrist as Scotland skipper for the autumn internationals but the big lock broke his arm shortly after. Greig Laidlaw stepped up and he has never looked back. The scrum-half is Cotter’s right hand man, his “gaffer” on the field, and it is difficult to imagine Scotland unravelling quite so badly at Twickenham had the little Borderer been in harness. It will be interesting to see whether Gregor Townsend sticks with Laidlaw or draws a line under his international career.
Infamously, Cotter’s luck ran out during the 2015 World Cup. Scotland were not entirely convincing in beating Japan, the Eagles and Samoa but they did enough to earn themselves a quarter-final spot where they gave Australia the mother and father of all frights, undone by Craig Joubert’s refereeing howler.
The post-match composure of Cotter and Laidlaw, choking down the bitter pill of defeat in the spotlight of the world’s media, was a lesson in rugby etiquette that is becoming increasingly rare.
That the Kiwi has done a good job goes without saying; that he had access to the best squad of Scotland players in this millennium is also true.
In his first match as Scotland coach Cotter was forced to field the old war horse Sean Lamont at outside centre against the USA Eagles in Houston.These days Cotter has the options of running Mark Bennett, Huw Jones, Alex Dunbar, Duncan Taylor or Matt Scott in the 13 shirt; all specialist centres and all worthy of an international call-up, although two are currently injured.
Admittedly the cupboard is a little bare elsewhere but almost every coach in almost every country bemoans the lack of depth in some positions and in fairness to Cotter, he has never offered Scotland’s limited playing pool as an excuse, which you can’t say about all his predecessors.
The problem of Scotland’s limited numbers has been ameliorated by three “projects” – WP Nel, Josh Strauss and Cornell du Preez – who won’t forget his Test debut against England in a hurry. Whether you agree with the policy or not, Scotland have more reason than most to use World Rugby’s residency rule to their advantage.
In his three-year reign Cotter capped 28 new players in all, a huge number, and for every Michael Cusack, who came and went unheralded, there were a umpteen genuine prospects who were given their head: Hamish Watson, Ali Price, Huw Jones and Zander Fagerson are Scotland’s immediate future.
Others, like Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Ben Toolis, have been and gone but they will surely return.
One squad insider insisted that the players admired the coach because “he treats them like adults”. Another suggested that the players had “grown up” on his watch. The two might just be related.
Whatever the cause, the statistics point to an improving squad. That first Six Nations whitewash was replaced with two wins the following season, including a rare victory over France, and three wins this time round the houses with the first success against Wales in a decade. This has been achieved while injury stripped Cotter of one third of his starting XV.
The Kiwi inherited a demoralised squad that didn’t know what it was supposed to be doing or how it was supposed to be doing it. On Cotter’s watch Scotland became a fully focused team, punching above their individual weight with an attacking brand of rugby that has made the world sit up and take notice. Recent home form has been superlative, a blistering start against Ireland, a commanding second 40 to keep Wales pointless and yesterday’s win over Italy.
It seems a little irrelevant to argue that he should stay or go, the deal is done. Cotter becomes the highest paid coach in world rugby and Montpellier is as pleasant a place as any for “Stern Vern” to practise his famous “glass eye” stare, except in France he is known as Jules (as in Jules Verne).
You suspect that Jules will probably be happier in France – whether Scottish rugby will be happier when he is gone is a moot point.