Six Nations: Scotland have lots of options

Vern Cotter has always insisted that his squad of players is progressing nicely, not so fast that you can see the growth in real time but slow and steady.

Vern Cotters Scotland tenure so far has seen him oversee 16 victories, 15 losses and no draws. Picture: Neil Hanna

“Last year was an improvement,” said Cotter at the Six Nations launch. “This one, the group has come forward. The indicators are that Scottish rugby is shifting forward.”

Most coaches say something similar regardless of results but in this instance the figures back the Kiwi up. Cotter has won more games than he has lost as Scotland coach, if only just – 16 victories, 15 losses, no draws. He has pass marks, the only coach to boast such figures this millennium.

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In his first season Cotter was taken aback by the depth of passion that the Six Nations generates, calling it a “brutal, tough, demanding, feudal” competition. It may have lacked the skill level of the the southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship but the venerable institution still comes with old-fashioned, civil-war intensity.

The Kiwi was whitewashed in his first tournament, an uncomfortable experience for him and us, but Scotland won two matches last season, beating France for the first time in a decade while the Under-20s beat England for the first time ever.

Glasgow and Edinburgh are both through to the quarter-finals of their respective cup competitions, something that most of us could scarcely imagine, let alone predict, a few years back. And the Scotland Sevens squad arguably topped them all by beating all comers at Twickenham.

Last season may be seen by rugby historians as a watershed moment for Scottish rugby, the year in which the country finally came to terms with professionalism, “and not before time”, you might mutter.

Something is stirring in Scottish rugby which is stretching and yawning and finally waking up to a brave new professional world. The question remains: why now? What has prompted this renaissance?

The answer above all else is quality players. Since the turn of the millennium Scotland has had a dearth of class, especially in the back division, while Cotter has the good fortune to be holding the reins with some thoroughbreds in harness.

In the past Scotland have had so few midfield options that they turned to wingers such as Simon Webster and Sean Lamont to fill the No 13 shirt. Now Cotter has five international-class centres vying for a place in the starting line-up and that doesn’t include the claims of the injured Peter Horne.

In the past, loosehead props such as Ally Dickinson and George Graham have been pressed into service as a tighthead. Now Cotter has one world-class operator in WP Nel, currently injured, backed up by a youngster in Zander Fagerson who, if he isn’t world-class right now, surely will be given a little time.

The entire backrow trio from Cotter’s debut Test against the USA in 2014 – Alasdair Strokosch, Blair Cowan and Johnnie Beattie – have either retired or been retired. John Barclay has come back in from the cold, Hamish Watson offers competition to the Kiwi flanker John Hardie, Ryan Wilson is in the form of his life and the project players Josh Strauss and Cornell Du Preez give Cotter the luxury of options that simply were not available to his predecessors, even in the enforced absence of David Denton.

Jonny Gray has come through in the second row and, along with his brother, Richie, is a live Lions candidate. Finn Russell had everyone swooning over his performance against Leicester and a good Six Nations could see him sporting red rather than blue this summer. He is the best stand-off Scotland have had this millennium, though the fact he is the only international class stand-off Scotland have unearthed remains a worry.

This is not to denigrate Cotter’s coaching efforts over the years – his impressive record speaks for itself – only just to point out that the likes of Andy Robinson and Frank Hadden didn’t have the same number of tools that Cotter has at his disposal.

He might want to select a big scrummaging hooker against the strength of Ireland’s front row, so he turns to Ross Ford; or two muscular flankers, so he employs Du Preez and Wilson either side of Strauss. Cotter may think that a turnover specialist who is hard over the ball is needed in Paris and he has one in Hamish Watson, but he might prefer John Hardie’s aggressive tackling to give George Ford something to look out for.

The Kiwi may want Mark Bennett’s smart running lines against Wales’ rush defence or Duncan Taylor’s communication skills to counter Jonny Sexton’s passing ability before employing Huw Jones’ outside break against a one-paced Italian back division.

The point is that Cotter has more options available than his immediate predecessors. The problem is that the Scotland coach 
still has fewer than his immediate 
opponent, friend and rival, Ireland coach Joe Schmidt.