Warren Gatland is not the only New Zealander in the Six Nations coaching fraternity: Joe Schmidt of Ireland and Vern Cotter of Scotland also hail from the Land of the Long White Shroud, as visiting rugby teams renicknamed the country many moons and countless Test defeats ago.
It is beginning to look like a takeover – one that puts the British & Irish Lions hierarchy in a sensitive place ahead of the 2017 series against the All Blacks.
But there is much rugby to be played before then, not least in mid-March when Cotter and Schmidt set about out-thinking each other at Murrayfield. Both men are pressing the right buttons with their respective Celtic charges: Schmidt won the Six Nations title at his first attempt – Ireland won four of their five games last year – while Cotter’s early work with the Scots has been full of promise.
The two are friends, having worked together at Clermont Auvergne and nudged the powerful French club towards a long-awaited first domestic championship triumph.
“I learnt a lot about forward play from Vern and I like to think he learnt something about the backs from me,” Schmidt said, “although whenever we separated in training I always had the impression that he thought we were going for a latte. He likes to play the Te Puke farmer card a little bit, but he’s massively competitive and will bring a real edge to Scotland. Do I have any Six Nations advice for him? I wouldn’t give him any tips. I’d sooner give him a bum steer.”
Cotter comes across as an altogether sterner character, partly because he remains steeped in the man-of-the-land ways referred to by his fellow Kiwi and partly, perhaps, because he has already stepped into a cowpat of controversy following his decision to pick the uncapped flanker Hugh Blake, a New Zealander with Scottish qualification, ahead of such celebrated back-rowers as Kelly Brown, John Barclay and Johnnie Beattie.
Pressed on this issue, he was defiantly unapologetic. “Hugh has all the physical attributes – the All Blacks don’t pick players for their Under-20s without them going through a rigorous process – and there are Super 15 franchises who’d love to have him in their squads right now,” he said.
“It’s also the case that he saw himself as a Scot living in New Zealand and has proved his heritage by making a decision that was pretty big for a 22-year-old. I was a little surprised by the reaction to his selection, but it wasn’t a difficult call for me to make.”
While Schmidt may not be satisfied with anything less than a successful defence of the Six Nations trophy, Cotter will surely be happy with a finish above the fold. But however good the Irish may be – and their third place in the world rankings suggests they are pretty damned hot at the moment – that Murrayfield date on the final weekend will be testing indeed. As Schmidt acknowledged, the two coaches have “bounced too much detail off each other in the past” for it not to be close.