Schmidt confident his old pal Vern Cotter will improve Scotland’s fortunes

Two coaches, who together delivered glory for Clermont, set to renew acquaintances

Vern Cotter: extended his contract and will now guide Scotland’s fortunes until June, 2017. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Vern Cotter: extended his contract and will now guide Scotland’s fortunes until June, 2017. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

Although there was only one coveted Bouclier de Brennus in his time with Clermont, perhaps Vern Cotter’s greatest achievement was to last eight years at one club. Even Michael Cheika lasted only two seasons at Stade Francais before a very French coup from within his own coaching and playing staff. Foreign coaches tend not to endure in the circus that is the Top 14 and it’s doubtful Cotter’s longevity will ever be emulated by an overseas’ coach.

Although he was a big, strong number eight with Bay of Plenty and Counties from 1980 to 1990, as a coach Cotter is as much Gallic as New Zealand- influenced by now.

He actually began his coaching career with a little Italian club called Pieve di Cento, just outside Bologna, in 1989. Having returned for one more season with Counties, he was contacted by Rumilly, where he played for five seasons and was given the nickname ‘Jules’, as in Jules Vern.

From there he moved to Lourdes, taking in spells with Saint Julien, Lourdes a second time and US Castelnau-Madiran – cutting his coaching teeth along the way – in what he admits was an eye-opening nine years in French club rugby.

“Coming from New Zealand I found they played the man a lot more than the ball,” he recalled in an interview with The Irish Times. “In fact you didn’t really need the ball for the first ten minutes. Just kicking the ball into the stands and running up and punching the opposition was a regular thing week-in and week-out.”

“So it was another perspective on the game, coming from New Zealand, where we did focus on what we could do with the ball. It was very much a man’s game in France, and has always been treated as that. And the reason they scored so many tries was generally because if you won the engagement in the first ten minutes you were usually playing against 12 because they had three players on the ground getting treated. That was how they worked overlaps in France,” he recalled with a laugh.

After five years as head coach of Bay of Plenty, he coached the Crusaders forwards for three seasons before moving to Clermont, and latterly Scotland. In his dozen matches to date, the Scots have won five, including wins away and at home over Argentina.

The 55-6 defeat to South Africa in Port Elizabeth at the end of his opening four-match tour across three continents in June last year can be overlooked, as it fell outside the international window and Scotland were understrength.

Five tries

Six NationsIreland

After today’s game, the Scots play Irish group rivals Italy away and at home before Cotter finalises his World Cup squad. The Scots play Japan and USA before their decisive games against South Africa and Samoa, both of whom appear troubled at the moment, and with both games just across the border in Newcastle, they won’t lack for support.

As a hard-edged backrow himself, Cotter has brought a harder edge to the Scottish team. This has come on the back of a reality check as to how much work the players have to do in order to reach the top European levels, as well as his Kiwi KISS (Keep it Simple Stupid) mentality; the game is simple if skills are good.

In much of this, he has provided the Scottish national team with the closest thing they’ve had to Jim Telfer in style, albeit less vocal. He prefers to play it straight and talk himself down, but he is very astute.

An approachable, straight-talking, helpful and humorous individual, the Scottish players, supporters and media have generally taken to Cotter well. He comes across as a humble guy with a huge passion for the game and a person who likes the history of Scottish rugby. He wants to play the ‘Scottish way’, not copy others, and as a result he wants his Scottish side to play an open, attacking game with exciting players like Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell on the ball, and he is ambitious.

“I think they’re real excited about him, still,” said Les Kiss of Cotter’s influence yesterday.

“I think that’s probably the quality that you can see, that Vern has challenged them in a different way. He’s certainly someone who is mentioned a lot by the players in terms of where they can see their potential.”

“From what I’ve seen, despite the fact that they’re a really difficult team and their forward pack will really hunt as a pack, he really wants them to play the expansive game that they do revel in. When they get that going, it is a dangerous thing to play against.

“The fact that he’s brought that into the culture, everyone will fight hard for each other, he still wants that ambitious play to exist. You see that with the selection for a start with (Henry) Pyrgos (at scrum-half), for example. I just think he’s a really good player, underrated and can cause some real damage around the edges. He does release the ball well. He likes to play both sides of the pitch.

“When you’re got Ruairidh Jackson and (Greig) Tonks & Co. And (Richie) Vernon, a converted second row in the centre, he doesn’t mind getting the ball to the wide channels. By virtue of the fact that they are still very excited about what he is still bringing, it makes them a dangerous proposition without a doubt.”

Cotter has also been helped by having a better base to work from than many of his predecessors, thanks mainly to the rejuvenation at Glasgow under Gregor Townsend which culminated in their deserved Guinness Pro12 title last May.

Real energy

Joe Schmidt

Back in 2002, Joe Schmidt was coaching the New Zealand Schools at a game in Tauranga, with Cotter in attendance. After the game Cotter introduced himself and asked Schmidt if he would take a few skills’ sessions with his Bay of Plenty team.

Schmidt was taking a year out to complete his masters in business management. Their personalities, strong bond and areas of speciality made for a good mix, and Schmidt became Cotter’s assistant for two years at Bay of Plenty before they went their separate ways; Cotter to the Crusaders, Schmidt to the Auckland Blues.

Two years later Schmidt took a call while sitting in a Sydney café.

“Schmity, I’ve got a job for us mate,” said Cotter of his impending move to Clermont. But Schmidt saw out the last year of his contract with the Auckland Blues before they hooked up together again for three seasons at Clermont, during which they reached their Holy Grail of a first Bouclier de Brennus in 98 years of trying. Then Leinster came calling for Schmidt.

Head-to-head

This week Cotter signed a one-year contract extension, having initially agreed a two-year deal which began in the summer of 2014 and is thus now contracted to stay at Murrayfield until June 2017.

Despite evidence of progress under his watch, this could be seen as a premature act by the Scottish Rugby Union, who have long since managed the transition from amateurism to professionalism quite poorly and retain a bad reputation.

But Schmidt has no doubt it was good business by the Scots.

“I’m delighted to see it apart from the fact that he will improve them which is disconcerting because you can’t afford other teams getting better because it demands more of us.

“So, it would have been nice to see him go back to his farm in Tepuki to follow some cattle and sheep around, but it’s great for Scottish rugby,” added Ireland’s head coach.

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