Vern Cotter says Scotland ready to push Ireland closer
Coach confident his improving team have the resources this time to test Ireland’s mettle
Vern Cotter: “Will having them in the first game at BT Murrayfield give us a lift going into the game? Yes, I think it will.” Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA
This will be Scotland’s third and last Six Nations under Vern Cotter. Despite what appears to have been a steadily upward graph in his tenure, last August the Scottish RFU announced they would not be renewing his contract, not that the Scots have been showing any hint whatsoever that they are being presided over by a lame duck.
Bottom of the pile in his first campaign two seasons ago, when competitive in every game until Ireland went try-hunting on Super Saturday, last season Scotland were beaten narrowly by England and Wales, games that would have yielded bonus losing points under the new system, before handsome wins over Italy and France (their first in a decade) and then extending Ireland to a 35-25 win in Dublin.
What’s more, Cotter’s reign would have been assumed an altogether different hue but for two one-point defeats to Australia. The first, of course, was that excruciating 35-34 World Cup quarter-final defeat following Craig Joubert’s controversial late penalty against the Scots, and the second last autumn, when they also beat Argentina for a second time and Georgia.
All told, Scotland have won 14 and lost 14 under Cotter’s watch, a fair return given where they had come from, even if only six of those wins were against Tier One nations. And yet, he’s on his way, albeit to ambitious Montpellier.
“It’s never been about me,” he says, in characteristic fashion, when it was put to him that he could go down as Scotland’s best coach in yonks in terms of results. “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. I’m just looking at how we can get a foothold into their game, try and score points and hopefully push them close. I just get on with that. At the end there might be some time for reflection but at the moment I’m not.”
“The first Six Nations [in 2015] was a revelation to me, just how tough it was. 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 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, Greig [Laidlaw] has been the obvious leader and helped guys like Finn [Russell] and Hoggy [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.”
The Glasgow-Munster games underline the heightened rivalry between a chunk of the players who’ll be involved in what is likely to be a tetchy affair next Saturday. Needless to say, he has hugely genuine respect for Joe Schmidt and Ireland, even if he also believes Scotland are in a better place than a year ago.
“We probably have a little more strength in depth this year. We have lost WP Nel, a big loss, but that gives opportunities to Zander [Ferguson] and the others who have been selected. I think we will get closer than those last two games in the Six Nations. Will having them in the first game at BT Murrayfield give us a lift going into the game? Yes, I think it will. If we do everything right, we prepare well and our mindset is right then perhaps we can push them closer than we have previously.”
“Once again though, we are talking about Ireland. At the end of the Six Nations we will see which of the two teams – Ireland or England – are at the top of their game. Not many teams beat New Zealand. They beat us by 40 points not so long ago, which is an indication of what we are up against. We need to be a little frightened of them – I think that’s a good thing. We need to be on top of our game.”