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.