Just how well does Vern Cotter know his opposite number Guy Noves? Well, according to the respected French weekly sports paper Midi-Olympique, the pair are old buddies whose friendship and rivalry goes way beyond the norm for two former Top 14 coaches of Clermont and Toulouse, writes Iain Morrison.
The pair have been hunting together and, such were their competitive instincts, they were both determined to come out on top. Cotter won that battle, according to the French paper, with a wild boar and a fox in the bag. When the Kiwi eventually led Clermont to victory in the Top 14 in 2010, after the club had lost ten successive finals, he received a congratulatory text message from his old amigo Noves that read: “Nice bullet, it went straight to the heart!”
But if he won the hunting competition, Cotter has yet to triumph in the day job. He has led Scotland twice against France and lost both times, although the last time out it was a close-run thing. One penalty was all that separated the two teams in the World Cup warm-up match last September in Paris but Cotter would give a lot to go one better this afternoon and not just to for the bragging rights over his old copain.
The Kiwi may have ulterior motives driving him even harder than usual today according to a former coaching colleague from Clermont, Stephane Boiroux, who claims in an interview with Midi-Olympique that Cotter dreams of coaching Les Blues. The French Federation has never hired a foreigner but the New Zealander is already seen as naturalised.
“Vern has spent most of his adult life in France,” Boiroux points out. “His youngest daughter, Araballa, was born here. I don’t know if he still thinks about it but, in my opinion, he would make a great French coach. He knows La Marseillaise by heart!
“When I look at them [Cotter and Noves] I imagine a confrontation between two great generals, between Patton and Rommel. They respect each other. They admire each other. But they are there to make war.”
I quizzed one of the many travelling French journalists on this “dream” of Cotter’s to coach France and he did that Gallic thing with a shrug and a dismissive look before insisting that Boiroux’s view was common currency in France, “everyone thinks the same thing”.
The opportunity may come sooner than anyone realises. The position of president of the FFR is up for grabs in December, the incumbent Pierre Camou is standing again on a platform that will see a new stadium built 20 miles to the south of Paris city centre. He is up against former French coach Bernard Laporte, who has made clear his antipathy to Noves. The outcome will be interesting for all sorts of reasons.
Cotter has always been properly respectful of what Noves has achieved. He could hardly be otherwise, with ten Top 14 titles to his name and those four European Cup triumphs. He emphasised as much on Friday, underlining the respect he had for his rival who was, he insisted, “very professional, very competent”. According to Boiroux, during their time in the Top 14 Cotter always referred to the Stade Toulouse coach with the epithet, Maitre – the master. “He (Cotter) always had the secret wish to get the measure of Maitre Noves and to better him,” Boiroux claims in the interview. “In his eyes that was the best prize European rugby had to offer.”
“The pair are two strong men who lead the locker room,” says former French winger Cedric Heymans, who played for a decade at Toulouse under Noves and now appears as a journalist on Canal+. “But to classify them as that would be something of a caricature if not totally wrong. For both of them the part of the psychologist in the coach is important. With Guy it is not always simple. He is a lover of human relationships. To understand me and draw out the best in me he would try first one tactic and then another. Speaking to players from Clermont it seems like Vern is very much in the same mould.”
When it was put to Noves last week that he might one day work side by side with Cotter, the French coach laughed off the suggestion, insisting there wasn’t enough room in the dressing room for two out-sized personalities.
After the big game these best of frenemies will play “cat and mouse” in the press debrief, according to Heymans, in an effort to say as little as possible. Later they will share a drink and perhaps Cotter will remind his French rival that he was detained by Lothian and Borders’ finest in this very stadium back in 2005 after Toulouse beat Stade Francaise to lift the European Cup. Noves’ memories of Murrayfield will be bitter-sweet, especially after losing the Heineken quarter-final to Edinburgh here in 2012.
“They have not called each other this week,” says Boiroux. “But they have never cut the link. When one or the other have been through difficult times, they always sent messages of support. These two giants appreciate each other.”