Scottish Rugby News and Opinion


Where Does Vern Go From Here?

Vern Cotter - pic © Al Ross
Vern Cotter - pic © Al Ross

Now the dust has settled and heads have cleared – at least mine has after a slightly over indulgent weekend – I want to take a slightly different, more optimistic approach to Saturday’s result.

Like everyone else, I ran the full gamut of emotions we’ve all became so familiar with over the years when that final whistle went– anger, frustration, confusion, despair et all. How could a team promise so much only a matter of months ago, but suddenly look like a bunch of strangers? How could the same set of players, give or take, put in such hearty, encouraging performances against France and Wales and suddenly be downed by a spirted, aggressive, cohesive but fairly limited Italy team. In all honesty, I’m still struggling to work out why…although there’s one or two noticeable points many fans have picked up on. The failure to repeatedly deal with the Azzurri’s rolling mauls, slow service to our dynamic backline and simple, basic errors (not finding touch and taking a kick off straight out) but most damningly, a distinct lack of leadership.

I’d like to leave the technical aspects to one side for a moment and focus on the last point – leadership. Have a look at the starting line up from Saturday and you’ll see we fielded only 3 players with over 50 caps (Lamont with 92, Ford with 82 and Murray with 63) behind them came Dickinson with 41 and Laidlaw and Beattie with a relatively paltry 36 apiece. Then you’re on to Stuart Hogg, somebody who in many people’s minds has come to symbolise the new, dynamic, attacking backline we possess with 29 caps. Now put it another way, from the backline alone, Sean Lamont possess 10 caps fewer that the rest combined. From the forwards, the starting front row held more than double the amount of caps (186) the rest of the pack had (75). To summarise the substitute’s bench briefly, the replacement front row had a combined 61 caps between them, with 2 debutants coming on in the back 5.

Finally, before I lose you under a barrage of numbers think of these names – Parisse, O’Connell, Dusautoir, Warbuton and Robshaw. Like them, or loathe them, it’s clear to see that they’re simply put, leaders of men and rallying points for their teams. Disagree? 111, 99, 73, 52 and 36 is their respective cap total (before the latest round of 6 Nations fixtures). Robshaw, with 36 caps has captained his side on 33 occasions, Warbuton, on almost 40. Both made high profile mistakes early on in their tenures, but were able to learn from these and move on. Also, only Dusautoir and Warbuton haven’t played every minute of every match this tournament, due to injury induced substitutions. The Welsh, English and Irish captains also have added British and Irish Lions experience.

Our captain, by comparison? 36 caps also, and was only made captain during last year’s 6 Nations due to Scott Johnson’s dropping of the regular captain, Kelly Brown mid-way through the tournament. Laidlaw has also yet to complete a full 80 minutes in this year’s competition and many would argue, myself included, has suffered a significant drop in form.

We can also easily trot out a list of experienced, developed leaders in each team. Alun Wyn-Jones, Pascal Pape, Jamie Heaslip, Cian Healy, Rory Best, Johnny Sexton, Gethin Jenkins, Morgan Parra, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Luke McLean, James Haskell, Nick Easter to simply name a few. All experienced, all leaders, all communicators.

Now you may have read that, and asked “so what”? The point I’m trying to make is simply this –when the chips are down, you’re up against it and facing relentless aggression from the totemic monolith of Sergio Parisse, a man who has at times, has simply dragged Italian rugby kicking and screaming through past 6 Nations campaigns, you’re being faced with a force of nature. Our relatively young, callow and inexperienced team wilted under such aggression. Is that a failure? Most certainly. Are they first group of players to have done so? Most certainly not. But with a lack of on field leadership, particularly when our anointed regular captain is off the field, is it not to be expected that some of these guys may be overwhelmed? Sure, you could argue somebody of the experience of Sean Lamont should stand up and make himself heard, but he’s never been that character. George North, a man similar in size and stature won his 50th cap by the time he was 22 and routinely leads by sheer example more than anything.

Who is our rallying point? Who is the man in our team whose team mates can look into his eyes and say “I’m following you”.

When we’re expecting the 10 cap Johnny Gray, many observer’s tip for future captaincy duties, to display leadership qualities whilst still finding his feet at international level, calling line outs and having to partner,first, the 10 cap Tim Swinson then the debutant Ben Toolis – it shows distinctly and acutely, the sheer lack of experience our team possesses.

But…to bring it back to now. Where do we go from here has been the question I, and many others have asked, and the answer is simple. Forward. I’m of the opinion that Saturday’s defeat could, and perhaps should, prove more beneficial to Vern Cotter and his players than any encouraging performances against Wales, France or New Zealand for the simple reason of this – experience.

I’ve claimed before that this team is at a juncture. Many of the “old guard”, those who experienced an Indian summer (or autumn, to be more precise) will bear the brunt of Saturday’s loss. Vern Cotter will surely have learnt who can be counted on when the going gets tough, and who can’t be. He will surely have learned more in those 80 minutes of brutal arm wrestling who can perform, control and sustain performance under pressure than 160 minutes against the Welsh and French when we threw the ball about in a way we haven’t seen for years but, ultimately, lost.

Is bringing back in one or two gnarled and grizzled old heads such as Kelly Brown, John Barclay or Al Kellock to provide a spot of leadership and experience the answer? Well, in my opinion anyway, it wouldn’t be a bad place to start. A friend of mine recently worked with Al Kellock and made it clear, when he walked into a room and talked, you listened.

Finally, players, and teams, are born when under fire. No great team has come together and not had set backs along the way. Sir Clive Woodward frequently talks about lost matches providing him more insight into player’s mind-sets than any victory did. His team’s failures lead to incredible victories, in his words. Stuart Lancaster talked frequently about the humiliation his team suffered in 2014 in Wales and how he was able to harness that pain before this year’s reverse fixture. Joe Schmidt highlighted Ireland’s loss to England last year as a turning point for this team and now they’re sitting 3rd in the World rankings and playing the sort of rugby that takes you deep in to a world cup. And to go off rugby, the Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, has cited the pain defeat caused his team as the sole motivation behind going a season unbeaten.

This new dawn wasn’t forged in defeat to Wales and France and it certainly won’t be broken in defeat to Italy. Experience comes from winning, and whisper it here, losing.

Vern Cotter, the man who was billed as our saviour, deserves the time to get this right and if suffering defeats arms him and his team with the required knowledge…well then I’m prepared to suffer with them.

30 Responses

  1. Great article, and easy to agree with most, if not all, of it.

    Laidlaw had a terrific Autumn, but is now in terrible form. It may feel like a psychological step back, but I feel Kelly Brown is the “no-brainer” choice to return. He is a captain that can and has led the team, he is skilled in his position, and he would be honoured to be given the chance to lead again.

    Drop Laidlaw, bring in Cusiter (SHC not quite ready), kicking duties to the returning Russell, and a back row of Brown, Cowan, and Ashe.

    1. I also would like to see these changes. That is definitely a back row I would like to see together and Brown back to Captain. That is on the basis of posts which say Brown is on form in England, Cowan has been the one getting stuck in and deserves his place and Ashe is the only 8 in the last 6 months for Scotland who appears able to make yards and pass the ball when required.

      Re Cussiter – he has for a long time been the bridesmaid and not the bride and I wonder if he should just be moved past. Harsh I know but sadly that is the destiny of some players.

      SHC – If he is the future then he is ready to be blooded. If he is considered good enough to come on and close out games (which hasn’t happened, through n o fault of his) then he deserves a start

      This is meant to be a build to the World Cup. To not make the changes now is to destine us to more of the same

  2. Not every man gets a second chance, not every man can right their wrongs

    This is your chance Scotland…….. Your chance to be remembered…….as proud men who lived for the jersey and the fans ……..justice will prevail……….and legends will be born.

    We believe Scotland, we Believe.

    “This whiskey is top notch”

  3. There is no doubt that we just didn’t come up to the mark against the Italians, a team fielding players mostly from the bottom two clubs of the pro 12- a league that the majority of the Scottish team (through Glasgow) regularly dominate. So what went wrong?

    Firstly we have no leadership! Laidlaw isn’t international quality let alone a leader, Johnny gray will eventually step up to this. In the meantime, Al Kellock must be in the squad maybe even start. Agreed, he isn’t the best we’ve got but he’s one of the most vocal captains we’ve ever had, for pure leadership he is our Martin Johnson! Do you remember the embarrassment of Ross Fords captaincy? Confidence, is a clear problem as we are struggling to close out games and I think Kellock would certainly help at this end of the 80, maybe even a voice in the changing room.

    Why are John Barclay and Kelly Brown not being selected- it’s embarrassing!! There’s a lot of chat about how well Cowan is playing, Barclay is better and even so he could easily do a job at 8- not a big ball carrier but none of our current 8’s are. Any issue between these players and the SRU need ironed out.

    On the whole, I’ve been impressed with how we’ve come along under cotter but there is still plenty to be done. He should almost definately look at blooding some players at twickenham, a game realistically we have no hope in. I would like to see Fraser brown come in for ford but in honesty I would take anyone over him. Beattie has done very little other than knock on and shouldn’t start. Hidalgo clyne given a start with Russell and as I’ve already said Al Kellock in for Swinson.

    Not all is lost despite last weekend, I’m still very positive about what we showed in the first two games.

    Onwards and upwards!

  4. I see someone else likes the whisky too, cheers.
    Seriously Thom, can you honestly see them bringing in Al kellock against England at Twickenham. I completely agree that Big AK is a phenomenal leader but bringing him in would be a step backwards. The guys completely underperformance against Italy – and some players just don’t cut it (eg Beattie, Fyfe, maybe Harley, ) but the vast majority are gaining experience and are hungry for success. They f’d up big time against Italy and they know it. But drastic changes are not needed and would only serve to lower player confidence. They need to put on a show against England and at least show heart

  5. I agree with Not Neil. It would be a backward step to introduce AK as he is yesterdays man. I think the jury is out on Kelly Brown- he has the ability to be a class act on his day but I have’nt seen him play to his potential for years so I would say that he should not be included in the squad. We need mopre young fresh players to take us to the next level. Scotland were rubbish against Italy but faired reasonably well in the other two games even though we lost both.

    So what went wrong against Italy- was it just a one off?- who knows. Glasgow and Edinburgh nearly always thrash Italian club teams in the pro 12 but is that down to the fact that both are not 100% Scottish? Again who really knows?

    My own feeling is that if Scotland and Italy were to play 10 times we would probably win 7 or 8 of the encounteres but last week represented one of the 2 or 3 games out of 10 that we failed to do that. The sad fact now is that we will almost certainly take the wooden spoon. I watched the Englansd vs. Ireland game last week and both teams were superb and played the game with much more intensity that scotland are capable off. Given that we have not won a game at Twickenham since 1983, I would say the match is a foregone conclusion and will be a c.30 point victory to England. The Ireland game could be more interesting but I felt that Ireland were the better team in the aformentioned match. It will be played at Murryfield but I would still expect Ireland to win by 5-10 points or more if current form is anything to go by.

    I think we are heading in the right direction under VC but, with a small pool of players and only 2 pro teams in the country we will alwys struggele to compete against the better 6 nation and SH teams. lets face it VC cant exactly go out and by a full back or a scrum half. Sadly, I cant see much changing over the coming years except perhaps a slight improvement in form.

  6. Forgot to add- Laidlaw needs to be dropped. he wouldnt get a game for the Kinghorn YMCA team playing in the Valente chip shop east fife junior league based on current form.

  7. Just give up. The players are useless and are destined to win the wooden spoon this year. It would save us poor fans some heartache if they were to just give up right now. Why should we be subjected to any more of this garbage. The team cant even beat Italy and normally finished in 5th or 6th in the 6 nations. So is this team a source of national pride? More like a national disgrace!

  8. The Scottish management is entirely responsible for the officially chosen leaders. That there was none on the pitch when Laidlaw left the field, is embarassing and hopefully will be sorted immediately.
    The informal leadership was also AWOL when it mattered againsy Italy.

    What happened to the ‘leadership’ set I’d heard had been established?

    1. I heard Ford was the one to take over when Laidlaw goes off – unofficially I heard that but form a reasonably reliable source

      1. As others have pointed out Ford was taken off before Laidlaw due to injury but between him and Murray they’re “forward leaders”. Murray has spoken in the last few days about having a prominent leadership role within the pack, but he was off by that point too in the Italy match.

        Cross was certainly the most experienced forward we had on in the last couple of minutes, but I imagine he was mentally pre-occupied with scrumming at that stage.

        Anyway, onward and upwards!

      2. Andy , good comments however I have to say, I am not a Cross fan and he would not inspire me with confidence as a Pack leader, ring leader or cheer leader. He is a LOST leader. In all honesty , our future Scotland captain will be Jonny Gray. However lets get this season out of the way.

    2. Just hope the specialist training sessions for ten of the squad have extended beyond conditioning mentioned to that of apportioning leadership responsibilities. Read that Ewan Murray leads on the scrums,odd that he was taken off before end of Italy match when we were under most pressure.
      Wonder who took over this role in his absence,Ford or Jonny Gray?

      With no Ally Kellock type amongst the older players, agree Laidlaw not the answer or mouthy enough, we are relying on the young guns, Russell, Dunbar, Hogg and Gray having the confidence to inspire the team to at least some respectability down at Twickenham. Yes a big ask.
      Must click for us sometime soon and just don’t go with the doomsayers.

      Adding a more clinical edge to the promising attacking play shown against France and Wales and making our own/a stroke of luck is surely well within the most talented group of players Scotland have had for some time. I still believe.

      1. Wasn’t Brown on for Ford too? I seem to remember him being asked to throw to the tail of the lineout having just come on and messing it up under quite a lot of pressure.

        I think it was a bad mistake of Cotter to take off all of the senior players for the final passages when we essentially collapsed no Ford, no Laidlaw, no Murray, clearly no idea who was supposed to be captain and evidently no one willing to take responsibility for making sure the team knew how it was goi g to close the game out.

  9. Need to bring back Brown. I understood that he was dropped to give Vern a better understadning of younger players. But from this understanding he needs to realise that brown was a great captain and knew how to keep a calm head–he also got throught a hell of a lot of graft.

    I would drop harley (needs a bit more development) and bring back brown. That should be enough, I think laidlaw would play better if he didnt have the captaincy to deal with.

    Still struggle with Number 8. Maybe we could keep Harley at 6 and play Brown at 8 (he does for the saries some times). Just not sure if he has the ball carrying ability but then we dont have a number 8 that does!

    1. Well who would disagree with that , he is playing reulalry in a tough league. There must be something we are not seeing there. Does he want it ? is it cant or wont ?

  10. Totally agree with the comments regarding Brown. Kelly Brown epitomises what it takes to be a leader. He is well respected by other players and to boot he’s also a great rugby player who is always committed and plays for the jersey. Seriously……why the heck is he not in the squad? And John Barclay, how can we afford to leave out two of our best back rowers. Bloody Scott Johnson, I’d love to get a rugby ball and boot it right up his……., he’s an absolute brainless lump of uselessness. Rant over….Sorry.

  11. I too am a massive Brown/Barclay fan, but it’s Wednesday and the game is Saturday – so don’t get your hopes up gents. They won’t be back for the Ireland game either, even if Laidlaw and every Scottish back-rower has a howler v England.

    Sadly I think they’ve played their last games in Scotland shirt.

    I am tempted to believe the ‘official line’ on KB, that he’s not the kind of 6 that VC is looking for. Harley/Strok are very much archetypal 6s, basically being tacklebots in the Dan Lydiate mould. KB is more a 6.5. However, there’s a whole raft of leadership issues that makes his exclusion odd.

    Barclay’s omission, however, is wholly not anything to with his rugby. I’m convinced of that much. If Barclay wasn’t playing very well at Scarlets I would be fine with it. But that is categorically not the case. He is having the season of his life, and apologies if I sound ‘old-school’, but I always believed that the best Scottish 7 should play 7 for Scotland. I look forward to when the Scottish Rugby journos get the full story…

    I am a growing fan of Harley and Cowan, but the fact is this.

    Brown is a better 6 and leader than Harley/Stroker.

    Barclay is a better 7 and leader than Cowan/Watson.

    They are both, at present, better 8s and leaders than Beattie/Denton.

    However, don’t expect the SRU to risk the embarrassment of bringing them into the squad now. I am no longer calling for them to be in the squad, I would just like to hear the truth as to why they are not. Then I’m happy to leave put the issue to bed.

    1. Nice one Beard of Cross, you are in the know and discrete, I admire that. For whatever reason Kelly Brown does not fit in so VC will need to play the hand he has been dealt (The boss is not always right, but he is always the boss).
      However , leave Cowan out of this, I think he is the one back row that has merited a start from his performances in the jersey and we have yet to see him at his best. (I would add he is playing well for L Irish)
      Being honest , I am not expecting too much change on Saturday, though I would be surprised if Strokosh does not feature , just for the reasons I mentioned earlier, he will not get intimidated and we need some maturity for this game.

  12. Cheers for all the comments so far guys, much appreciated.

    As rightly noted, it’s now too late really to call Barclay, Brown, etc up with Saturday so close. Kelly is also injured and hasn’t played for Saracens since mid-Feb. According to his twitter feed, he’s “back soon” but in my opinion, we won’t see him for the Ireland game and I’m not holding out hope for the World Cup either. He is, however, also on record as saying there’s been dialogue between him and Cotter back in January with regard to future selection so there appears to be a chance.

    As for Barclay, having read through a few articles today to try and get a bit more background on the situation it appears that Vern isn’t interested – for whatever reason. A couple of time he’s been asked about Brown and Barclay and whilst he’s backed Brown pretty well, he’s not mentioned Barclay. We’ve all heard various rumors flying around and I don’t want to stoke them further, but I’d be pretty astounded to see Barclay back in the fold now.

    Which is gutting, because he’s been on fire for Scarlets recently, scored in his last 2 matches and provides cover at 7 and 8. I’m all for blooding youngsters and having a look at various players but I’m still not convinced that dismissing two high caliber players for reasons unknown is the correct way to go, especially when both appear to be desperate to play.

  13. Just read that Brian Redpath has left Sale with immediate effect, wonder where he’ll go, could do no worse that rock up at Edinburgh/scotland camps.

      1. Granted, would be nice to have the 2 pro sides coached by locals though,… Solomons just comes across as a doddery old man sometimes. granted back in the day he was astute but perhaps best put out to pasture, only my opinion mind you.

    1. Redpath has already been linked to Yorkshire Carnegie. He hasn’t really succeeded at any club he’s coached yet and turned down the offer to become headcoach at Edinburgh three years ago so if he was offered a place at Edinburgh I’d see it as a massive retrograde step.

      I think Solomons contract runs out at the end of the year. I expect he’ll be offered an extension but it isn’t at all clear yet whether he’d accept so Edinburgh might be in the market after all.

  14. Everyone will have different opinions as to who the best starting 15 are but,the captaincy question apart,the reasons we lost to Italy are pretty simple for an amateur like me to understand.
    They are as follows:-
    There seemed to be a distinct”foot off the gas” attitude from the whole team after they scored the early breakaway try.

    The whole team switched off when Italy took a penalty.They did not appreciate that if the ball rebounds back into play off the posts,then both teams can compete for possession.Italy were alive to this but no Scottish player was.

    If a team is under pressure near its own Line with a few minutes to go and is awarded a penalty,the ball should be kicked into touch,which results in a line-out,which the team with the penalty awarded(Scotland) should win the ball and keep possession an run down the clock.
    These are simple steps which would have won the game for Scotland,but unfortunately,the touch kick was missed which allowed Italy to take up an attacking position from which they scored.

    Thirdly,Scotland seem totally unable to grasp the fact that Rugby Union is a fifteen a side game ,but they seem to make it easier for the opposition by having only fourteen,sometimes even thirteen,men on the pitch for periods of the game.
    They have been given more yellow cards than all the other six nations teams put together which indicates that the players are unaware of the laws of the game or at least how referees interpret them and this problem needs to be addressed.

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Scottish Rugby News and Opinion