Cotter goes to Cardiff with lower expectations but higher hopes

Scots have lost last eight meetings with Welsh, but are eager not to be written off

Vern Cotter’s Scotland side travel to Cardiff to play Wales on Saturday. Photograph: PA

Vern Cotter’s Scotland side travel to Cardiff to play Wales on Saturday. Photograph: PA

 
Vern Cotter

The optimism that had built up north of the border a week ago had evaporated and been replaced by a familiar despair before an encounter against opponents who have won the last eight meetings between the sides.

Cotter is used to success as a coach, first with the Crusaders in Super Rugby and then Clermont Auvergne in the Top 14. Well into his second year in charge of Scotland, he is having to deal with lower expectations but an equally critical reaction to defeat.

He pointed out that last weekend his side was in the game against England until the very end – unlike two years before when they lost 20-0, and paid for missed opportunities – but it had not been uncomfortable enough for the visitors.

Cotter has reversed the decline of the previous years since taking over as head coach, but that has yet to translate into results in the championship.

The size of the task he faces can be gauged in statistics: Scotland have won away in the Six Nations only once since 2010, in Italy, they were last successful in Cardiff in 2002, and they have not won in Twickenham or Paris since the Five Nations was expanded. They have lost their last eight matches in the tournament and, two years ago, admittedly playing a man short for an hour after Stuart Hogg was sent off, were beaten 51-3 in Cardiff .

Finding a way

David Denton

“I am not saying we are expecting to come here [Cardiff] and win, but it is something we feel we have to do.”

Cotter has stuck with 14 of the team that started against England, the centre Matt Scott only missing out because of injury. He said the squad was fed up with the “bits and pieces” that had been thrown at them since the 15-9 defeat to England.

What they will need to show against Wales is more composure on the ball: when England tightened up in the second half at Murrayfield and played for territory, Scotland had little to scavenge off and were unable to create space when moving their own ball, not helped by poor presentation at the breakdown.

They will have been heartened by the way Wales played against Ireland in Dublin on Sunday, making more than 200 passes and seeking width rather than trying to crash through the middle.

The looser the game on Saturday beneath the closed roof of the Millennium stadium, the more Scotland will feel they have a chance of winning, but the home side’s selection of Dan Biggar at outside-half , less than a week after he suffered an ankle injury at the Aviva Stadium that was initially thought would take a month to heal, indicates a return to a tried and tested territorial, aerial route, and Jamie Roberts surging over the gainline.

The former Wales scrum-half Mike Phillips said this week that one reason for Wales failing to capitalise on opportunities out wide and a lack of confidence in handling and passing was down to the way the coaches fulminated at mistakes in training. “Training can be very intense and pressure from the coaches can stop the players from expressing themselves. Sometimes it is over the top and you think, chill out, it’s one dropped ball, not the end of the world.”

Pressure on players

Shaun Edwards

Scotland feel they have been written off in, rather than by, Wales as their recent record goes before them. Yet it may not be the worst time to face the men in red, who are looking to refine their game after continued near misses against the major southern hemisphere nations.

Wales are a team comfortable with the familiar and Scotland need to take them outside that. The visitors scrummaged strongly against England until Mako Vunipola came off the bench, they have two athletic second rows in the Gray brothers, two open-side flankers, like Wales, in their back row and a ball-carrier in Denton who will be marking Taulupe Faletau, his team-mate at Bath next season.

They have the ingredients but not yet the instinct.

“We do not want to be courageous losers any more and all those other things from the past,” said Denton. “Our targets are higher than that.”

The fire is set: it just needs someone to light the match. – (Guardian service)

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