Vern Cotter has his work cut out to improve Scots

The emergence of Jonny Gray has been a standout moment. Picture: SNS
The emergence of Jonny Gray has been a standout moment. Picture: SNS
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Not much improvement, so Cotter has big job ahead, says Tom English

LET’S begin with the positives, the little pockets of optimism that dropped into our rugby world in Scotland in 2013. The news that the SRU landed a big beast as national coach was a source of hope for the future, even if Vern Cotter’s arrival was held back a year because of his commitments at Clermont Auvergne in France.

Cotter is a highly regarded coach, an old-school operator who is tough and canny. As forwards coach with the Crusaders he won two Super 12 titles. As head coach with Clermont since 2006 he has won a French championship and come close to winning it on several other occasions. Again this season, Clermont are top of the table in their domestic league and top of the table in their Heineken Cup pool, a competition they should have won last season had they held their nerve in the final against Toulon. Can he mould a Scotland team of mixed quality and drive it forward? That’s the question.

Other upbeat moments. The emergence of Jonny Gray, right, as a Test player against South Africa in the autumn at the age of 19. At 26, Tim Swinson is an old man by comparison, but he also made his Scotland debut in 2013 and suggested that he has plenty yet to offer. The performance against South Africa in Nelspruit in the summer was a stand-out, at least for 70 minutes. It was a Scotland team shorn of Sean Maitland, Stuart Hogg, Richie Gray and Ryan Grant – the four Lions – as well as Ross Ford, Tim Visser and Kelly Brown and yet, with seven minutes left they were just three points behind. They conceded late, but in terms of courage in adversity, it was the best we saw all year.

The worst? Well, that’s a long saga. Scott Johnson talks about progress but it’s really not all that evident. If you’re dealing with the bottom line – wins and losses – his 11 Tests in charge in 2013 have produced four victories and seven defeats, which is only one victory more than Andy Robinson managed in his last 11 Tests. Across the entirety of his reign, Robinson had a 42.9 per cent win ratio. Johnson, so far, is running at 36.3 per cent. Of course, the Australian has, arguably, one of the greatest jobs in rugby in that no matter how he fares he is still going to get a promotion at the end of it all. He is moving upstairs when Cotter appears, regardless of how Scotland perform in the months ahead. What a nice number that is. One of the great challenges is to get Scotland scoring more tries and winning more matches. Sure, they won two in the Six Nations for the first time since 2006 but, if that was a platform for progression, then it didn’t last long.

Scotland lost to Wales at Murrayfield and to France in Paris. If those performances weren’t ones to get you angry, the loss to Samoa that followed next surely was. As was the wretched display against South Africa in the autumn and the wasted opportunity to beat a weakened Wallabies.

What you can say about Scotland in 2013 is that they are continuing to plod along without going anywhere fast.

The previous year had been so calamitous it would have been almost impossible to see how they could have gone backwards.

So progress, but in baby-steps. Quite frankly, we should be counting the days until Cotter arrives.