In the closing stages of Scotland’s shambolic drubbing at the hands of Ireland, a galloping victory that won the visitors the Six Nations, a man left his seat in Murrayfield’s West Stand and made his way determinedly up the steps towards the box where the coaching staff sat. He raised his fist and shook it. “You should be ashamed,” he shouted. Vern Cotter sat unmoved, if he had noticed the outburst he gave no sign of it.
Fast forward six months and Grant Gilchrist, Scotland’s hefty lock, is sitting in a hotel in Glasgow and chuckling. He is talking about Cotter’s ways, and then is asked whether Stern Vern ever lightens up. “He’s a hard guy to read – he likes to wind the boys up,” says Gilchrist. “He likes to play on the whole being serious thing and then cracks a joke and you’ve no idea if he’s serious.”
The location of their coach’s sense of humour may still puzzle the players, but there is a noticeable feel-good factor around the Scotland camp. The “devastation”, as centre Peter Horne put it, felt in the wake of the Ireland game and a Six Nations whitewash has been banished. “Vern made it clear that the only people to blame were ourselves and we had to get our fingers out,” says Horne.
Two wins and two defeats in the warm-up games is not a return that stands out but the performances have. Optimism is creeping back, albeit carefully tempered. “I don’t think anybody is getting carried away,” says Al Kellock, Scotland’s captain at the last World Cup. “The guys had a tough Six Nations but we’ve seen massive improvements over the warm-up games and you begin to see the things Vern talked about, the areas he hoped to see improvement in. It’s been steady progress. We’re in a good place.”
This is a pivotal tournament for Cotter. The 53-year-old’s reputation, hard earned during his time in charge of Clermont and back home with Bay of Plenty, took a battering through his first Scottish spring. Scotland were eighth in the world when he arrived, dipped to 12th and are now 10th. He reportedly greeted those club triumphs, a first French title for 98 years and a first ever Ranfurly Shield with Plenty, just as Scotland’s failure in the Six Nations.
The eyes remain narrowed, often with a baseball cap pulled low, and the mouth tight-lipped. His reputation as a coach has always been fearsome, in his early days in New Zealand he was said to “scream himself hoarse” on the training field.
“I have a lot of respect for Vern,” says Gilchrist. “He’s very hard on us, testing guys all the time. As a player you feel every session you are under pressure to perform. You have to be on your game in training. Otherwise he is going to pick you up.”
He has made a deep impression on the likes of Colin Meads, John Hart and his former assistant, Joe Schmidt, now Ireland coach. They talk of the structures he introduces to his squad. He has set up a group of senior players – the Thistle Group – who are consulted about everything the coaching staff plan. There are echoes of how Graham Henry empowered his All Blacks.
“His attention to detail is excellent,” continues Giclhrist. “Sometimes in a training session I’ll feel we’re going pretty well and he’ll just rack up and go ‘You’re not doing this’. It’s small details, and it’s small details that are really going to matter. He doesn’t let anything slide.”
There is more to Cotter than meets the eye, and the next month may just prove there is more to his Scotland side too.Reuse content