Six Nations: ‘Improvement’ key for Scotland coach Vern Cotter

Scotland head coach Vern Cotter at training. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS/SRU
Scotland head coach Vern Cotter at training. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS/SRU
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To Cardiff then, and a stadium where Scotland haven’t tasted victory since 2002. But if that strikes you as a negative point to begin on, we could point out that actually makes it one of our happier hunting grounds when it comes to Six Nations away days.

Taking Rome out of the mix, which may be considered a bit cheeky considering there have been five losses there since 2000, Scotland have gone even longer without wins at the four other away stadiums in the tournament.

There was a famous victory at Dublin’s Croke Park in 2010 but none at Lansdowne Road, where the new Aviva Stadium sits, since 1998; none at the Stade de France since the 1999 Five Nations title-winning season; and, of course, Sean Lamont is the only man in tomorrow’s 23-man squad who was born when a win was last registered at Twickenham back in 1983.

It’s a context Scottish rugby fans are well aware of and reaffirms just how difficult it will be to stop the rot against an experienced Wales team who will be supremely confident of stretching that 14-year unbeaten home run against tomorrow’s opponents.

“With the record, we know it’s a tough ask to go to Wales and win that game. We know that,” said head coach Vern Cotter before the squad left Edinburgh for the Welsh capital yesterday.

“But within the team there is a real desire – and I think the players have said we’re fed up with bits and pieces that have been thrown at the team. We’re going to stick tight and work our way through this. It’s not going to be easy. The Six Nations is not an easy competition, we know that.

“We’ve got to take away the things that make it harder for us – and instead make it harder for the opposition.”

One the things which must make it harder for Scotland is the constant ramping up of psychological pressure which comes with every defeat in the competition – it’s now eight in a row. “We came last last year. Let’s not forget that,” said Cotter. “So we’re looking to improve on that and let’s wait until the end of the competition to see if we have.

“We lost by six points to England, we’re going to play in Wales, where two years ago it was a pretty difficult game [a record 51-3 defeat], I think – we’d like to do better than that.

“And we want to keep improving. We want to be able to get our injured players back on the field and with us as well, because we need everybody.”

With Matt Scott the latest centre to fall prey to injury, Cotter revealed that Glasgow’s Alex Dunbar was looking at another month out which makes it unlikely he will play any part in the tournament.

The Kiwi coach has agreed to have the roof closed for his first Test match taste of the Principality Stadium and can draw on the experience of facing Wales at home last year, when Finn Russell was sin-binned during a 26-23 defeat.

“Once again, it was a yellow card that tipped the game,” said Cotter. “Discipline wise, we only gave away nine penalties last week, England gave away 12.

“I think there’s an understanding there that, if we can stop making mistakes, it helps.

“They will go to the air and try to make us repeat those mistakes. We’re aware of that. The players have been working hard in training to take balls that are put high up in the sky. There are no guarantees. But we’re trying to perform better with regard to that.”

Performing better in the second half will also be key following a string of post-interval dips in the tournament which have led to points drying up and matches slipping away.

“You can put it down to a lot of things,” said Cotter when asked about the trend. “A good team opposite you, a couple of key moments when the ball is lost – momentum shifts.”

Cotter was impressed with tomorrow’s opponents as they fought back last week in Dublin to earn a 16-16 draw. “They are a good team all over, Wales. They’ve made a few changes to their front row and they’ve got a good scrum.

“But our scrum is looking forward to the challenge.

“If we can gain access anywhere in the game, whether it be scrum, line breaks or whatever, we will try to keep repeating it. In saying that, it’s a tough ask, we know. The record speaks for itself. But, as you can probably gather, we’d like to put in a decent game, a game we can sit back and say we can build from. I think we can build from our game against England.”

Last weekend, flankers John Barclay and John Hardie were up against England’s two natural blindsides in Chris Robshaw and James Haskell, with a more like-for-like battle in store tomorrow when they encounter Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton.

Cotter said: “If you look at the work rate, there was a great amount done by both [Barclay and Hardie last week]. The two Johns are different. [Barclay] is more of a link player and ball carrier – he did that well. I think they performed pretty well. And David [Denton] had a good game too. They’re looking forward to getting out there and improving their performance all over.”