Cotter Leaves His Legacy

This year’s Six Nations is, in my opinion, the most important in my time watching the Scottish rugby team. Not only does it come in the year of a Lions Tour which should, good form permitting, see a high proportion of Scots pushing for test places; but also comes at a key point in the World Cup cycle.

Most importantly for Scotland, it marks the end of Vern Cotter’s stint as head coach. While many, myself included, feel that it is a shame to lose the talent and reputation of Cotter, the SRU have calculated that retaining the services of Gregor Townsend is more important in the long term. The rights and wrongs of this can be debated but both points of view are understandable.

This Six Nations will decide both the position Townsend finds the team in, and the ultimate level of success Cotter has achieved in what I will describe as the 3 Phases of his tenure.

Phase 1 was the process of making Scotland competitive. Cotter admirably scrambled together a group of players in time to make preparations for the World Cup. Between taking over and that competition, only games against South Africa and Ireland were lost by a margin of more than 12 points. Each of these had mitigating circumstances: the South Africa game featured a Scotland team lacking a string of first choice players; and the Ireland team was furiously trying to accumulate as many points as possible in the fight for the Six Nations crown. Cotter may have lost every game of his first Six Nations, but Scotland deserved more from their games, certainly against France and Wales.

Phase 2, meanwhile, began with the World Cup, and focussed on the development of a distinctive style within the Scotland team. For so long Scotland had been a team with little identity, beyond perhaps usually featuring a strong back row: the key features of their attacking game were unsupported breaks, crabbing within opposition 22s and butchering of chances. However, in the 2015 World Cup and last year’s Six Nations Scotland displayed an attacking game based around inventive, highly skilled back play and a forward pack capable of dominating in the tight and being effective in the loose. Cotter took as his inspiration previously great Scotland teams who played a fast rucking and offloading game. Scotland not only made breaks, but supported them well and, once in the 22, took chances. The results were easy to see. In the group stage of the 2011 World Cup, Scotland scored just 4 tries. 4 years later that figure was 14, in a tougher group.

Cotter is of course fortunate in the creative midfield options he has at his disposal. Previous managers had to piece together a midfield from a handful of players, fortunate if a fit and in form player could be found for each of the 10-12-13 slots. Cotter can pick from 6 quality centres, each with a fairly distinct skill set. While his options at 10 remain limited, his selections are based far more on choice than some previous coaches.

That being said, Cotter’s influence was there for all to see at the World Cup. As the rest of the Home Nations – not unjustly more highly rated than Scotland – fell while playing a stodgy, kick-and-chase style for the most part, Scotland came closest to a semi-final spot. They looked extremely dodgy defensively at times, but sparkled in attack.

Scotland’s eventual defeat to Australia is a prime example of the strengths and deficiencies which Scotland displayed during Cotter’s second phase:

  • Playing in big games as the underdog.
  • Despite this, being competitive and playing in their own, well-defined style.
  • Performing slightly beyond expectations.
  • And losing.

Ultimately, that is the key characteristic of this Scotland team: when the big games come, Scotland lose.

The following Six Nations may have seen victories against Italy and France, but there were opportunities for victory against England and, especially, Wales. While the previous year these missed opportunities were signs of encouragement, by 2016 they were failings. As the team has improved and developed it is only right that we now hold them to a higher standard.

If Phase 1 of the Cotter project was about becoming competitive, and Phase 2 about engendering style, then phase 3 has to be about becoming winners. We saw the first signs of this in the autumn. While the Australia game was another kick in the teeth, I believe that the Argentina match showed a new, more cutthroat and professional side to this Scotland team.

This must be carried forward into this year’s Six Nations. Scotland have three home games and are away to France and England. Therefore, the minimum expectation for Scotland should be three wins, and I am sure that this is how the squad are preparing. This feels like the tightest Six Nations in some time, with perhaps Ireland and England a small step above the others (the extent to which Italy have improved under Conor O’Shea remains to be seen.) Scotland have shown that they can compete in these tight games, and that they can bring their own style to them. What needs to be proven now is that they can win them.

What is certain is that Gregor Townsend will begin his reign in a far more enviable position than any Scotland coach in recent memory. This Six Nations will show just how far down the line Scotland are. Vern Cotter will be remembered as a very good Scotland coach, a shrewd appointment who started the process of turning the Scotland team around.

This Six Nations will decide if he is a great one.

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19 comments on “Cotter Leaves His Legacy

  1. JC on

    rather kindly glosses over his first year and 6N whitewash – that team had no clear gameplan and boy did it show

  2. Doddies Trews on

    I have to disagree that in the Argentina game we were cutthroat. We tried our very hardest to not win that game, squandering 3 chances in the last 10 mins. Argentina gifting us a soft penalty right in front of the post in 80+mins was a total get out of jail free card. We need to show far more ruthlessness in this coming 6N; the other teams won’t be giving us 4 bites at the cherry…

    • Referendum on

      Exactly my thoughts on Argentina game. We won it by trying to snap defeat from the jaws of victory. We won when in the past we would have lost but it wasn’t really by a well designed and thought out victory. Yes we keep the game alive when in the past a knock on would have ended it so progress but we need to take teams on and believe. We need to learn how to be cute as Ireland are watch our attacking flare win us matches. Can’t wait for Sat.

      • Gregor Thomson on

        That’s fair comment. My point though is that we are moving down that road towards winning tight games, not that things are perfect. Equally, Scotland may have left points on the pitch but they ground out the win. I don’t think that is a game that Scotland of a year ago would have won.

  3. Andrew McGavin on

    The great positive difference in the Argentina game was possession and territorial dominance in the last 20 minutes. Yes, we squandered chances to win in the last 10, but that was a problem of skills and execution (still boggles the mind that Finn said he hadn’t practised drop goals), not temperament and gameplan. There was a ruthlessness about our control of the game at that stage.

    Key stat (from memory): Argentina had the ball for about 2 minutes in that last 20. That is new. Normally, we’re defending our own line desperately. Instead, we created four great opportunities at the right end of the pitch. We just managed to butcher three of them through poor execution. Scotland found a way, like other good teams do when they’re not playing that well. That’s why it was so positive.

  4. Frazer on

    For me, the development of Scotland during Cotter’s reign was like looking at one of those Magic Eye pictures – it looks a jumbled mess when you first see it, then it starts to coalesce into a coherent picture. At first when this happens you panic a bit and you lose the image. Then you concentrate again and then……… you can see everything with clarity and satisfaction.

    When Cotter was first appointed I, like many others, was excited. Here was a well respected and successful coach to turn Scotland into a quality side again. After the first year I was left a little disappointed. There were green shoots of recovery, but we still looked well short of the likes of Ireland, France, and Wales.

    Then during the World Cup and last year’s Six Nations things started to change. Scotland had a certain gameplay that was becoming more identifiable, and more effective. Suddenly we were making the bigger boys sit up and take notice.

    Now the appointment of Cotter made perfect sense (although Jason O’Halloran deserves a load of credit too). Scotland had a very good backline, a decent pack, and some depth developing in most areas. The future looked bright.

    When it was announced that Toonie was going to take over as Scotland coach after this Six Nations I was initially pleased, but after thinking about it for a while I find myself disappointed that Cotter wasn’t given until after the next World Cup. I understand why the decision was made, and Toonie is an excellent coach who has done extremely well at Glasgow, but I can’t help but feel that Cotter has been treated a little shabbily, and there is no guarantee that a good club coach will make a good National coach.

    • Rory Baldwin on

      I think the main problem is that Toony doesn’t get to be saviour. Usually the coach is sacked in disgrace (or resigns in sheer frustration in Robbo’s case) and the next one comes in to try and turn around our ever-sinking ship. This time it’s not the case, Vern already has the ship pointing away from the iceberg (6N notwithstanding) and Toony will have to evolve the team to a greater level to avoid the “why did we let Vern go?” questions from the start. Luckily for Gregor despite a patchy international spell as backs coach, he has done superb work at Glasgow building on Lineen’s foundations so the track record is there.

      • Ian on

        Toony took over from Lineen at Glasgow in similar circumstances – taking on a fairly successful side which was getting to the pro12 play-offs . I remember feeling Lineen was a bit hard done just as many do now for Cotter. But Toony did find that extra level in going from modest success to outright winners. Based on this, I don’t think not being the saviour is going to be that big problem.

  5. Referendum on

    I think exactly the opposite. Although I’d like Cotter to stay maybe till the world cup and build, Townsend gets to come into something that is very like his model at Glasgow. What a great time to come in and build on firm foundations. If we think oh no what if it fails then we’re getting into the Scottish mentality that has held us back for centuries. When has a coach come in on anything other than rock bottom? When Hadden went maybe? I also think the way the Scottish team is talking right now is leaving that mentality behind too. They haven’t come out and said oh we’re looking good and we can do this and we have the best team since 1999. But are saying talk is cheap and it’s what we do on the park. Much much better mentality. Lets hope it holds true on Saturday. A narrow win by 15 points will do nicely…

  6. Referendum on

    Team then

    Hogg, Maitland, Jones, Dunbar, Seymour, Russell, Laidlaw
    Strauss, Wilson, Watson, Gray, Gray, Dell, Brown, Fagerson

    Subs: Ford, Reid, Berghan, Swinson, Barclay, Price, Weir, Bennet

    Thoughts?

  7. Borderer on

    Exactly the team I would have chosen apart from Barclay for Wilson but I can understand the decision as Wilson is in great form. Great to see Brown given a chance. We now need to see maturity in our discipline, the Irish will test this to the full, and composure for 80 minutes. If we lose and play badly on Saturday we can’t blame the selection, although I feel this squad will be at its very best just in time for the next World Cup when the players will have another 20-30 caps each.

  8. Highland Bear on

    Cotter has done a great job given the omni-shambles he inherited from Johnson. One forgets how short a time he has had in charge – this is only his 3rd 6 Nations. The fact that Scotland is being respected by the media, other supporters, and the media for the first time in what feels like forever shows how far he has taken the team. A great pick by the SRU but why or why, having head-hunted their man weren’t they prepared to back him by paying off his contract with Clermont Auvergne.

    Like Moses and the promised land, it feels like he has led the team to international respectability and the prospect of winning matches against higher ranked teams. In my view he has been treated shabbily by the SRU in not offering him a contract extension. They have been blackmailed by Townsend into offering him Cotter’s job.

    Townsend himself has done a terrific job at Glasgow, building on Lineen’s legacy and successfully rebuilding the team which one the Pro 12 a couple of seasons ago. He will inherit a national team on the up with an attractive style of play. Rennie looks an astute capture.

    Now if only the SRU could turn their attention to the disaster that is Edinburgh.

    • Matto on

      I think the SRU deserve recognition for the changes in Scottish rugby over the last five or so years. Cotter, Scotstoun, consistently high gate turnouts, test season tickets, academies etc. Lots of good things that are turning around the direction and fortunes. Developing and retaining Scottish coaches is another aim, which I believe will have strongly influenced the Cotter/Townsend scenario. I am personally very sad to see Cotter go, he has been excellent, and has put his heart and soul into the job. I doubt the board let him go happily, but in retaining Townsend and bringing in Rennie, they have done very well out of a difficult situation. Now Edinburgh; firstly the very progressive step of a serious move out of Murrayfield is being attempted, addressing a fundamental, but financially and logistically challenging, issue. Good. As for the coach: it’s a hard gig to sell. I doubt there is a big and bright enough carrot within the realms of feasibility that would attract someone with Rennie’s reputation or credentials. So, another challenging issue to overcome, but I am actually developing a bit of faith that a serious and sensible effort will be aimed at finding a decent solution.

  9. coully on

    the argentina game in the autumn was a game that we would have easily lost in the past/been in argentinas position. a lot of endeavour but undone by a penalty right at the end, it’s nice to be on the other side of the score.

  10. Matto on

    Guid start. Grown up win. Massive tackling in the first half. Laidlaw shows why he is our man. Hogg nails his Lions shirt.

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