Vern Cotter may have used yesterday’s press conference to reveal his disappointment that he will be replaced as Scotland coach in June but a man with eight Test matches to preside over and a big-money return to France ahead in the coming months doesn’t have too much to grumble about.
The trademark stern exterior softened a little yesterday as Cotter appeared a man more at ease and there was even a joke to start things off.
When immediately asked about the absence of WP Nel from the squad, the Kiwi confirmed that it was a recurrence of the tighthead prop’s neck injury. “Which came as a surprise to us as we didn’t think he had a neck,” quipped Cotter.
He may have been smiling but inside must be hugely frustrated by the loss of the side’s scrummaging linchpin, who has been strongly tipped as a Lions Test starter next summer. However, in keeping with the upbeat vibe emanating from the 54-year-old Kiwi yesterday, he chose to focus on the positives and said: “Isn’t it a great opportunity for Zander [Fagerson]?
“He’s been playing well – we think he’s improved – and if he’s starting or on the bench for the games against Australia, Argentina or Georgia he’s got some reasonable shoes to fill.
“But he’ll be well supported by everybody. It’s a team game, the scrum is important, but everybody will be helping him. It’s a great test for us.”
Moray Low is the other tighthead in the squad and comes with more experience, although he has been largely playing loosehead for his club Exeter. However, such is the regard for 20-year-old Fagerson, who won his first cap in this year’s Calcutta Cup match, that he could well make his first start against Australia on 12 November.
Cotter did concede that the loss of Nel, who aggravated his troublesome neck in Edinburgh’s win over Harlequins on Saturday, was a big blow. “He saw a specialist again yesterday. I spoke to [SRU head doctor] James [Robson] this morning and it’s still unclear exactly what it is. He’s had this niggling neck injury, so we’re just having a look.
“At the moment it seems there’s no operation needed. Rest is the best thing for him, so he’s been given a minimum four-week rest period then he’ll be assessed from there.
“If there’s anything else that comes out, it will be given as soon as we know it. I tried to find out more this morning. It was only yesterday… When we were naming the squad, he was going to be involved.”
The other main surprise was the omission of centre Matt Scott, who has been on good form with Gloucester, with young Edinburgh flanker Magnus Bradbury also perhaps unlucky to miss out on the squad, although he will be part of the training group.
Cotter admitted that the recent upturn in Edinburgh’s performances was a boost for the national team going into a series in which games against Argentina and Georgia will follow on consecutive Saturdays after the Wallabies game.
“I think it’s important to have a game where a player can express himself,” said the national coach in an apparent vote of approval in interim Edinburgh chief Duncan Hodge’s more adventurous approach to that of the departed Alan Solomons. “I thought the game against Harlequins was a good game. There are certainly things they’ll want to tidy up but seeing players take initiative is important.”
South Africa-born Edinburgh back-rower Cornell du Preez is now qualified on the residency rule but has not played much as he recovers from ankle surgery at the end of last season. “Cornell played very well last year but he’s had this ankle injury that he’s still not fully recovered from,” said Cotter. “So we’re aware of what he can do and just waiting for him to be fully fit.
“Magnus has come through. We’ve seen him progress his game. Three months ago I probably would have said he wouldn’t be involved but seeing the progress he has made has been great. And I’d say Hamish [Watson] has made progress as well. I think his game is developing. It’s exciting times at Edinburgh with young players coming through. Look at Blair Kinghorn. We considered and looked at him. He played very well last week. We’d like him to back up a few more games like that before he becomes involved.”
Of course that game against Australia will bring back memories of the World Cup quarter-final heartbreak. Cotter said he expects it will stir emotions in his players. What about in him? “I’m not known for my emotion,” he straight-batted. Though even that came with the hint of a smile.