PLAYERS may insist they are looking no further ahead than the next match, but coaches often prefer to take the longer view – all the more so when the present day is not exactly brimming over with good news. It was therefore no surprise yesterday when, after four consecutive defeats in the Six Nations Championship, Vern Cotter opted to accentuate the positive and gaze hopefully into what he is sure will be a more fruitful future.
Of course the Scotland coach would love to have a win on the board already, and of course he would like to break his tournament duck against Ireland at Murrayfield tomorrow. But, given the current reality, he felt it important to emphasise the promise shown by his squad, key members of which are still very short of Test-match experience.
“We’re looking long term,” Cotter said. “We’re looking at how the group is moving forward and developing. We’re looking at the World Cup.
“A lot of these teams have spent more time together, had more experience together. Ireland are one of them. Their preparations are perhaps slightly ahead of us at the minute, through the time they’ve spent together.
“But this Six Nations, although it’s frustrating not to get the results and I’m frustrated for the players because they haven’t been able to validate the improvements in their game with a victory, the real focus is [on] performing well.
“We’ve seen that there are things we can control and things we can’t. If we focus on the things we can control, and get better at them, that will help. We’re talking about kick-chase defence – we need to get better there. We’re looking at defending mauls – we obviously have to get better at that.”
After the eight-point loss in Paris and the three-point defeat at home to Wales – both of which contained some encouraging elements – Cotter believes that his team’s progress was derailed by the loss of key players to injury, as well as the suspension from the Italy game of Finn Russell. “We lost momentum after the Wales game, through injury and a suspension,” he continued.
“I think there are undeniably strong signs of identity and solidarity within the group. That’s the most important thing – that and the awareness of needing to improve.
“We’ve got a young playmaker in Finn Russell and I think he’s doing really well. He’s improving. He’s learning the game.
“Stuart Hogg’s learning his role as a decider-playmaker as well at 15, because often he comes into the front line. Mark Bennett’s coming along really well. Tommy Seymour is confirming his position. Dougie Fife – good opportunity for him; first home game. The World Cup’s only a few months away. He gets an opportunity.
“Up front there are players that will come back into reckoning. Grant Gilchrist comes back into the running. Richie Gray will come back into the reckoning. Josh Strauss comes in. We’ve got Ryan Wilson that should be available. There’s a number of players who will strengthen the squad and provide more competition.
“Greig [Laidlaw] has done a great job with the captaincy. We’ve got young guys coming through. We’ve still got Chris Cusiter as well.
“I think if we continue believing in the way that we can use the talents and the skills we have and keep enjoying doing it and obviously strengthen areas that let us down . . . there are times when we almost play against ourselves. We’re our own worst enemies.”
Cotter is convinced that tomorrow, far from feeling sorry for themselves because of their present run of bad results, Scotland will be able to channel their frustrations into taking on Ireland. “They’re hurting at the moment, but we’d like to see a positive result that would validate some of the hard work that’s gone in. You can only keep pushing away and keep believing, and I think they do.
“We don’t have an excuse culture. We’re not going to sit there and say it was the referee or whatever. We’re going to say what can we change and get better at?
“There have been some limiting things. Some things have limited us and stopped us getting to where we would like to have been. Some of them have been our own doing, some of them haven’t, but like I say there’s a strong sense of identity within the side and they want to do well and keep improving.”
Having said all that, the coach is aware that his team might well improve tomorrow and still be on the losing side against an Ireland team who are going for the title. If that does happen, he simply hopes that his players will be able to learn further from adversity, and then emerge stronger from the chastening experience.
“We know that Ireland master just about every facet of the game, so we’re going to have to be better in the air, on the ground at lineout time and at scrum time. So it’s a great test to finish off,” he added.
“But we’re looking further. And if there is something positive to take out of it, it’s that you find out more about people around you when things get tough. And things have been tough.”
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