Vern Cotter: ‘Half-step’ back will carry Scotland forward

Ireland's Jonny Sexton is flipped out of a ruck by Alex Dunbar, earning the Scot a yellow card, the team's second of the match.  Picture: Richard Heathcote/Getty
Ireland's Jonny Sexton is flipped out of a ruck by Alex Dunbar, earning the Scot a yellow card, the team's second of the match. Picture: Richard Heathcote/Getty
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Vern Cotter rarely lets an opportunity go by without reminding everyone that this Scotland team is progressing, developing and improving over time. And we are to presume that the movement is always forwards even if the evidence before our eyes suggests otherwise. The Kiwi did eventually concede a ‘half step’ backwards, but only in the name of progress.

Ireland have been a little ordinary this season but they claimed 79 per cent of possession in the first 40 minutes of yesterday’s match and they should have had this one dead and buried by half time. At that point they led by eight points but it could have been 80 so why did Scotland start so slowly?

“It wasn’t a good start,” Cotter conceded. “They [Ireland] held the ball and we took a while to get our hands back on it and we were penalised and got a yellow card. But I thought some of the penalties were tough.

“In the second half when we managed to hold the ball and get them under pressure and perhaps we weren’t accurate enough at times as when we were climbing back and getting ascendancy we got another yellow card and playing 20 minutes with only 14 on the field is tough. But we still showed character and courage and scored what I thought were good tries.

“We’ll accept criticism because it will help us move forward. We’ll have a good look at it, we’re driven to improve. That’s not just a story we’re telling, that’s something that’s within the group, so if this is a half-step backwards to propel us forward we’ll take it.”

Scotland’s performance in the first half undermined any pretence they might have had at winning this one but even then they were co-architects of their own downfall. Scotland’s two yellow cards, to John Barclay in the first half and Alex Dunbar after the break, proved pivotal, with Ireland scoring three of their four tries when Scotland had a man in the bin.

But such was Scotland’s indiscipline that the referee stopped the game and tore a strip off Scotland skipper Greig Laidlaw as early as the 11th minute. At one point in the first half the penalty count was 9-1 against the visitors and if Pascal Gauzere was wrong about the the specifics of Barclay’s 24th-minute card he could hardly be blamed given the team’s overall disregard for the laws.

“That’s for other people to assess,” Cotter said about the Barclay card before assessing it himself. “We got penalised for something similar during the World Cup and all we ask for is consistency with those sorts of rulings. We’ll learn from that. We’ll have to be careful in those types of areas but that’s for others to decide, and we’ll work on the stuff we can control.

“I need to have a closer look. I thought we had the penalty a couple of times. I thought we were over the ball well when they got isolated and the referee saw it in a different way and we had to adapt fairly quickly after the yellow card to John. He was very good over ball there.”

The second yellow went to Dunbar with the score 28-20. The Scot had flipped Jonny Sexton out of a ruck but the stand-off landed awkwardly on his shoulder and then, somewhat dramatically, held his head. It wasn’t a responsible reaction from someone with a long history of concussion and Joe Schmidt needs to have a quiet word.

Laidlaw was the victim to the same sort of roll in the Italy game and the Scotland skipper backed up his coach’s call for a level playing field.

“As Vern says, all you ask for is consistency across the board, and sometimes referees see these things and sometimes they don’t,” said the scrum-half, who has now scored more than 500 points for Scotland. “That’s just the way it goes. When you’re playing Test match rugby and you pick up two yellow cards and only have 14 boys on the field, it makes it very tough.

“The ref was on us from the start today, wasn’t he? We never got much from him at all as he felt we were worthy of the two yellow cards. That was disappointing because we spoke about discipline before the game and it was critical, and that was one of the areas where we probably let them into the game.”

Just one of the many areas, he could have, but didn’t, add.