IF New Zealand has a secret agenda to take over Celtic rugby by stealth, they are making a very decent fist of things. First up Warren Gatland was given the Wales post following their disastrous showing in the 2007 Rugby World Cup, a week or so ago Joe Schmidt got the Ireland gig and now their fellow countryman, Anthony Vernon Cotter of Clermont Auvergne, has emerged as the man who the SRU want to take Scotland into the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Never mind pinot noir, coaching nous has to be New Zealand’s most valuable export commodity.
Cotter was a decent No.8 in his playing days, a good ball carrier according to one former team-mate. If he failed to reach the very top of the tree as a player, he is making sure he goes all the way in his second coming as a coach. After turning out for Counties Manukau in New Zealand he played for a series of second-class French clubs in the amateur days when even lowly teams looked after you well enough. He straddled the switch to professionalism and only retired from rugby in 1999 at the advanced age of 37, which says something about his bloody-minded determination, if nothing else.
At the end of his playing days he returned home and took up coaching, first with Bay of Plenty, who captured the Ranfurly Shield under his direction, and then, for three years, he coached the Crusaders forwards under Robbie Deans. The Crusaders lost his first final (2004) but won the Super Rugby title the following two years, which is when Clermont came calling.
The French club was a basket case which had been through seven coaches in the previous seven seasons. Situated in the industrial town of Clermont Ferrand and founded by the son of the Michelin tyre firm’s founder, the club had never wanted for financial support. But they were famous primarily for losing. No one lost like Clermont, whose name became synonymous with heroic failure. When Cotter arrived, they had been to the Top 14 final on seven separate occasions and lost every single one. They were the David Bowie of losers, constantly reinventing themselves and finding brand new ways to screw it up. After Cotter’s arrival in 2006, they immediately won the European Challenge Cup but stumbled in three more Top 14 finals (2007, 2008 & 2009) in quick succession until the longest losing streak in French rugby was finally put to bed in 2010 when Clermont beat Perpignan 19-6 to lift the Bouclier de Brennus for the first time. Little wonder that Cotter is considered a local hero in the Auvergne region after bringing some typical Kiwi values and melding them on to a talented French squad.
“Vern Cotter brought serious discipline,” Clemont’s French winger Julien Malzieu told L’Equipe last year. “In the past we had a talented group of players but perhaps we didn’t take it seriously enough. The coach arrived, refocused everyone, it was hard to begin with, I won’t hide that, but we have no regrets because now the club is flying high.”
The club that was synonymous with losing is now on the longest unbeaten home run since “Babe” Ruth retired. The club have racked up a scarcely believable 62-match unbeaten streak at Marcel Michelin. The last team to beat them on their own turf was Montpellier and that happened back in November, 2009, another decade altogether.
Little wonder that Cotter is in demand. According to reports he was only narrowly squeezed out of the frame for the All Blacks’ job by Steve Hansen following the successful World Cup campaign in 2011. The Kiwi was linked to the Irish job which eventually went to his former assistant at Clermont, Joe Schmidt, and the RFU spoke to him before Stuart Lancaster put his hand up and earned a permanent contract with England. Now Scotland are wooing Cotter who, after seven years at Clermont, might feel it’s time to move on. But the nagging question remains. What’s in it for him?
Rightly or wrongly most pundits will presume that Cotter has his eyes set on the All Blacks, in which case the Scotland post may prove a decent stepping stone towards that end. Should the All Blacks fail in 2015, which means anything short of successfully defending their title as World Champions, then Cotter would be well placed to jump into Hansen’s shoes. The Scotland job may not be the poisoned chalice that some make out, if only because expectations are relatively modest. Meanwhile SRU chief executive Mark Dodson and director of rugby/interim head coach Scott Johnson will make a compelling case that there is sufficient young talent in the Scottish game to launch a decent assault on the 2015 World Cup.
There needs to be. In a move that has to tickle anyone with an ounce of irony in their blood, Mourad Boudjellal, the millionaire backer of Toulon, was recently in the French press complaining about Clermont’s gargantuan ¤25 million budget. At least Cotter has spent wisely, with the likes of Brock James, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Regan King, Nathan Hines and the Georgian prop Davit Zirakashvili all earning their keep. However foreign recruits (eight) outnumbered French players in yesterday’s starting XV for the final of the Heineken Cup (opponents Toulon had just four French starters) and Cotter does not have the luxury of buying in players at Test level. He has to work with what he’s got and Scotland’s stocks are running low in certain positions – the first and third rows of the scrum, along with the perpetual headache that is the midfield, will all test the Kiwi’s patience and skill.
Cotter is a hands-on forwards coach, which will raise questions over why Scottish Rugby sanctioned the appointment of Jonathan Humphreys late last month when they could have made do with Shade Munro or Steve Scott for the South African tour, unless the Welshman is to double up at Edinburgh in much the same way that Matt Taylor marshals Glasgow and Scotland’s defence?
The only other question is how Cotter will rub along with the new director of rugby Scott Johnson because the Kiwi and the Australian are not exactly peas from the same pod.
Dodson will need to peg out their respective territories with clarity and precision or risk a trans-Tasman turf war between two strong characters who are used to doing things their own way.
1962: Born on 27 January.
1980-1990: Plays as a back-row forward for Manukau and Auckland.
1990-1998: Moves to France where he plays for a number of clubs, including Rumilly, FC Lourdes,
Saint-Junien and US Castelnau-Madiran.
1999: Returns to New Zealand where he takes over as coach of Bay of Plenty in the National Provincial Championship.
2004: Appointed as forwards coach of Canterbury Crusaders in Super Rugby competition, finishing runners-up in his first season and winning the title in 2005 and 2006.
2006: Appointed head coach of Clermont Auvergne. Finish runners-up behind Stade Français in the 2006-07 season. In the following two seasons they lose in the Grand Final, before winning the French Top 14 title in 2009-10, beating Perpignan in the final. In the same season they reach the Heineken Cup quarter-finals but lose to Leinster. In 2010-11 and 2011-12 they reach semi-finals of Top 14.
2013: Leads Clermont to semi-finals of the Top 14 once again and to the final of the Heineken Cup. Rules himself out of the running for the Ireland post following Declan Kidney’s departure in April. In May he is reported to have been offered the Scotland job.