Vern Cotter revealed yesterday that a wish to defend the honour of a rugby nation he has always held a soft spot for had sown the seeds of his stint as Scotland coach.
For a third and final time in a dark blue SRU tie, the Kiwi coach arrived at the plush Hurlingham Club in Fulham for the annual launch of the Six Nations tournament. When it ends he will return to France, where ridicule of Scotland had raised his hackles.
Cotter had long admired Scotland, from watching the famous Grand Slam side come within a whisker of beating the All Blacks on New Zealand soil in the summer of 1990. Years later as head coach of Clermont Auvergne he witnessed former Jed-Forest player Neil McIlroy, who was part of his backroom staff, teased by the French as Scotland struggled in successive Six Nations.
“Neil was our Scotsman from Jedburgh. He was always supporting Scotland fervently and got a bit of a hard time,” explained Cotter. “I’d watched Scotland playing, the spirit they had, the way they played the game. They were innovative. I always loved watching them and then when everyone was laughing at them over a sweepstake I was thinking ‘gee I’d like to see those guys get a bit of pride back in their game and get a bit of a smile back on their faces again.’
“So when the opportunity arose I thought it was one of those things that are meant to happen. I hope we’ve been able to achieve a bit of that in the last couple of years.”
Cotter took the Scotland reins in 2014 and after the trauma of a Wooden Spoon whitewash in his first Six Nations has presided over clear progress to the point where there is genuine optimism heading into this year’s tournament.
Cotter will depart, somewhat reluctantly but sanguine, for Montpellier at the end of the season and if Scotland did really well he would do so as statistically the country’s most successful coach. “It’s never been about me,” said Cotter. “It’s been about these guys getting up and performing, playing well and giving people who come to the stadium a smile on their face and enjoying the performances.
“I’ve never counted. I read that the other day but it’s just about going from one game to the next and trying to improve. That’s the sole focus. My thoughts are now just structured around this Six Nations and the first game up against Ireland [a week on Saturday at BT Murrayfield].
“I’m just looking at how we can get a foothold into their game, try and score points and hopefully push them close. At the end there might be some time for reflection but at the moment I’m not.”
Cotter is proud of the journey the team has made out of the darkness of that 2015 wipeout and is confident about the last couple of months of his time with them and the future under Gregor Townsend.
“The first Six Nations was a revelation to me just how tough it was,” he reflected. “But I always sit down and take positives and I got a very clear indication of what had to be done. It gave me a clear pathway and we’ve been able to follow that through in terms of strength in depth.
“Scottish rugby is on the up. Both pro teams have qualified [for the last eight] in Europe and we’ve got players in other successful teams like Saracens and such like.
“I think the leadership and shared experience has helped. Coming through a World Cup, reaching a quarter-final. There have been games that have been very disappointing to have lost and from those there have been honest reviews that have helped move us forward.
“If you look at the leadership group, [Captain] Greig [Laidlaw] has been the obvious leader and helped guys like Finn [Russell] and Stuart [Hogg] around him. He’s been able to lean on guys like Jonny Gray, a young man who is accumulating Test caps.
“We are still a long way away from reaching that famous point where the majority of your team is between 40 and 80 Test caps but we’re getting there. When this team gets more time together in this Six Nations it will be a great competition for us because there are opportunities to go on a Lions tour. I think we have players in serious consideration.
“We need a good Six Nations. Then if they get that experience it’s just going to filter down right through Scottish rugby.”