How stern Vern Cotter revived Scotland

That Ireland retain a psychological stranglehold over Scotland, after a decade and a half of unmerciful beatings, is without question. But Vern Cotter appears to have gained his own psychological stranglehold over Scotland, and this is what threatens to make today’s Aviva Stadium encounter interesting.
How stern Vern Cotter revived Scotland

We all noticed Cotter’s uncharacteristic show of emotion in the moment of triumph over France at Murrayfield last Sunday. Under relentless pressure, his team refused to yield. But this wasn’t a typical contemporary Scottish win, in that they didn’t nudge their noses in front and then barricade their way to a one-score success. They beat France by 11 points, and it was when the margin of victory was confirmed, rather than the victory itself, that Cotter let the mask slip.

After four rounds, Scotland are the least penalised team in the championship. In the past, a tired forward would have lost concentration and conceded a penalty in that moment — or worse. Remember last season, when Scotland snatched the wooden spoon out of Italy’s grasp with a last-minute penalty try to leave their home crowd thinking things really weren’t ever going to change? This time around, it was all about last-minute discipline, not last-minute indiscipline, and it caused a man nicknamed “Stern” Cotter in some quarters to break a smile and take a breath and look around for someone who might be sharing his feeling of euphoria.

It is in this mood of reflected relief that Scotland come to Dublin, where they have won only once this century, feeling pretty reassured that old- fashioned discipline can win matches.

Albeit that the new development of backs scoring tries has been a factor, too.

“As a group, we do focus on that,” said Cotter this week when presented with Scotland’s disciplinary stats. “You don’t want to give the opposition easy opportunities to get lineouts in your half. These things always seem to be tied closely to penalty counts. It is just about being smart all over the field. I think the team is taking pride in those things, which is important, and will be again. Away from home, you have to be very disciplined and give no easy access to the opposition. It is one of the things the group is focusing on, and I think they’re doing a good job.”

Cotter used the same briefing to declare that every member of his squad has improved his game in the past year. This seemed far-fetched, and it was probably a deliberate motivational tactic. Scotland rarely win twice in a row, and the coaches need their players to believe this renaissance is genuine if they are to have any chance of beating a team that scored a try every nine minutes last time out.

Cotter admitted that consecutive wins would make it easier to prepare his team this week — “You win some, you learn some — isn’t that the old expression?” — but in the search for context, he was drawn not to the Dan Parks-inspired snatch-and-grab at Croke Park in 2010, but rather to last season’s Scotland-Ireland match at Murrayfield, a match that Ireland won by a record 30-point margin.

This was something that demanded elaboration.

“You’ve got to remember things,” said the New Zealander. “The first half against Ireland last year, I thought we were pretty much in the game. There was a try that was disallowed. There was a try we didn’t quite get down in the last minute, and if we’d got that down, they wouldn’t have been Six Nations champions.

“We made too many errors in that game. I think we’re starting to reduce those.”

So what of Ireland’s curious 2016 campaign? The former Clermont-Ferrand supremo blanked attempts to draw him into mind games with his old apprentice Joe Schmidt, preferring to heap praise on Ireland rather than try to pinpoint where things may have gone wrong for them this year.

“I think it is fine margins. Putting up the number of points they did against Italy shows they are capable of playing very well. They are a big, young, bulky team. They are physical. Irish rugby has always been physical and I think with Jonny Sexton and Conor Murray running the show they have the core of how the team is directed.

“They are a smart team and a physical team, playing at home in the last game. It will be played with a lot of intensity, as it always is, so we will have to get our heads up and stay smart and try to apply pressure as long as we can and get results from that.”

Cotter will start Duncan Weir at 10, with Finn Russell adhering to head injuries protocol. He has resisted the urge, typically, to throw the ball to Peter Horne, despite his exceptionally controlled performance as an early substitute for Russell against the French. This is another example of how a good coach controls the psyche and mood of his team — don’t be reactive in the face of an unplanned positive outcome.

“Duncan has got a good kicking game. He has been varying his passing game as well. It’s exciting for him. Credit to his character — Finn’s been starting in front of him, but he’s kept working in the background,” said Cotter. Having worked so hard in the background himself, the burly Kiwi, if he were so inclined, could sit back and enjoy this one. Joe Schmidt has rather less licence to do so.

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