Small steps leading to Scottish leap for Vern Cotter

It might seem a little strange for a coach with just a 20% win record in the Six Nations to be lauded quite as much as Vern Cotter has in Scotland these last few months.

Yet Scottish rugby folk feel that Cotter has played no small part in enabling them to foresee a bright future for their underperforming team.

The 53-year-old New Zealander will bow out as head coach at the end of his third Six Nations campaign next month, making way for Glasgow’s Gregor Townsend as the departing boss returns to the French Top14 and the top job at Montpellier.

On the face of it, the two wins from 10 Six Nations starts on his watch since succeeding Australian Scott Johnson are merely a continuation of the Scots’ miserable record since the Championship went from five teams to six in 2000.

Cotter has delivered a wooden spoon from a whitewash in 2015 and an improvement to fourth 12 months ago, merely adding two more seasons of disappointment for a country that has managed a best finish of third just three times in 16 years.

As Scotland prepare to welcome Ireland to Murrayfield tomorrow afternoon, captain Greig Laidlaw sees it rather differently.

The Gloucester scrum-half, who will follow Cotter to France at the end of the season when he joins his head coach’s former club Clermont Auvergne, points to the exciting talent being unleashed by the Kiwi and the enhanced skill sets of players taking to the field with positivity and clarity.

“We are miles ahead of where we were when Vern first came in,” Laidlaw said. “We are playing with a lot more confidence, each and every player understands what their job is within the team.

“We have developed our skill sets which is something which Vern has spoken about since he came in and he’s continued to speak about it.

“It’s about trying to develop and become better rugby players, better leaders and having a better understanding of the game.

“We are starting to strike a good balance between that now.

“Players like Finn (Russell), Alex Dunbar, Huw Jones, Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland. There are a whole host of players who’ve really developed. We have forwards who can play the ball and that comes through now as we can hurt teams by scoring tries.

“We can’t go out to try and defend to win games, that’s when you come unstuck. It’s about breaking down defences and we have the players to do that. If we are disciplined and play in the right areas of the field we will give ourselves a chance to win games. I feel as though we are much further down the track than we have been before.”

Scotland’s reputation was certainly enhanced by their World Cup quarter-final performance against Australia 15 months ago, when a questionable decision by referee Craig Joubert at the death allowed the Wallabies to sneak victory with a penalty and deny the Scots a semi-final berth.

There was another narrow loss to the Aussies last November, followed by wins over Argentina and Georgia but Six Nations success has remained elusive for a coach who quickly understood the size of his task during a trying first Championship in charge in 2015.

“The first Six Nations was a revelation to me as to just how tough it was,” Cotter said. “But I always sit down and take positives and I got a 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 has been the obvious leader and helped guys like Finn and Hoggy 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.”

If Scotland are to get that “good Six Nations” Cotter’s men must get off to a winning start tomorrow in Edinburgh against Ireland and his good friend and former Clermont assistant Joe Schmidt.

Schmidt’s teams have dished out two crushing defeats on each of the last days of the past two campaigns, winning 40-10 at Murrayfield in 2015 to snatch the Championship and inflict a painful whitewash on the Scots before last season’s 35-25 win in Dublin that was more comprehensive than the scoreline suggests.

“We probably have a little more strength in depth this year,” Cotter said. “We have lost (tighthead prop) WP Nel, a big loss, but that gives opportunities to Zander (Fagerson) and others. 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, 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 good thing. We need to be on top of our game.”

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