Cotter departs with Scotland flying

Date published: March 23 2017

In rugby – or any sport – no player owns a jersey, they are simply borrowing it, with the intent of leaving it in a better place than they found it. 

This also applies to coaches and it was as such that on Saturday afternoon we paid a sad farewell to Vern Cotter from the international arena.

The Scotland head coach went out in perfect fashion to an adoring Murrayfield crowd, overseeing a 29-0 victory over long-time Wooden Spoon rivals, Italy. 

Of course, Scotland were a long way from competing for the Wooden Spoon this year and you could see the appreciation for that transformation from the Scottish crowd, 65,000 of whom were on their feet applauding Cotter, who now returns to the Top 14 and will take over from Jake White at Montpellier.

Those warm feelings were reciprocated by the Kiwi coach, who broke character completely at the final whistle, tearing up as it seemed to finally dawn on him that his three-year adventure in Caledonia had come to an end.

To go out in such a manner, to the rapturous acclaim of a home crowd, is a rare thing in coaching. Scotland’s desire to fill the role with homegrown talent in the form of Gregor Townsend is understandable, but it makes for an even more poignant parting with Cotter, who had done very little wrong in his tenure.

Just as players have a responsibility to add to the legacy of the jersey they wear, coaches have a mission to ensure that their successor inherits a better team and/or situation than the ones they themselves took on.

In this sense, Cotter’s reign has been an immensely successful one.

From a results perspective alone, he surpasses all his recent predecessors. His 53 percent win rate over 34 Tests is the best mark recorded by a Scotland coach since Sir Ian McGeechan’s return of 58 percent in his first stint in the job, between 1988 and 1993. 

It comfortably outstrips the likes of Frank Hadden (39 percent) and Andy Robinson (43 percent), as well as the legendary Jim Telfer (1980-84 – 52 percent, 1994-99 – 40 percent).

In fact, if McGeechan’s two spells as head coach were combined, he would also fall below the win rate that Cotter has achieved.

This season’s tally of three wins in the Six Nations is the most Scotland have recorded in the tournament since they matched that total 11 years ago, in 2006.

The latter half of his tenure has also seen Cotter begin to turn Murrayfield back into a fortress, of sorts. Five of Scotland’s last six games in Edinburgh have resulted in wins for the home side and the sole loss, to Australia, was a particularly unlucky one-point defeat.

Directly related to the impressive results Scotland have achieved under the New Zealander has been the quality and quantity improvements to the player pool that he has orchestrated and overseen.

Over his three-year spell, Cotter has capped 27 new players, many of whom have gone on to become stalwarts in the current side. 

Finn Russell was identified and taken on Cotter’s maiden Scotland tour back in 2014, Hamish Watson was added in the 2015 Six Nations, John Hardie and WP Nel joined the party at the Rugby World Cup and then the likes of Zander Fagerson and Huw Jones have made their bows since. 

It’s been a mixed approach to talent identification for Cotter, with 10 of his 27 new caps being born in New Zealand, South Africa or Australia, as well as having spent their formative rugby years in those countries.

The other side of the coin has been his eagerness to blood young Scottish prospects, most notably Fagerson and Russell, but the likes of Adam Ashe, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Magnus Bradbury have all also been brought in at young ages.

It's a tough balancing act to manage, especially for a nation that has only two top-level club teams, but the results and performances have shown that Cotter has done a good job merging the two and establishing a larger pool of players to pick from than many of his predecessors had at their disposals.

It takes more than players to make a successful national team, though, and it’s in the coaching and approach to the game where Cotter has had another marked impact on Scotland.

The 14 tries scored by Scotland in this year’s Six Nations is the most they’ve managed since they won the Grand Slam in 1999, when they crossed the whitewash a total of 16 times.

It underlies the improvements they have made as an attacking side under Cotter and assistant coach Jason O’Halloran and it is a much-welcomed sight in Scotland, after the most expensive of premiums that seemed to be imposed on tries during the 2000s and much of the 2010s.

The clinical edge that the Scots have developed under Cotter has historically been the toughest attribute for any northern hemisphere side to cultivate, and the relatively short time he has taken to instil it, especially in a nation that had been so profligate for so long, should single it out as one of the shining lights on his extensive rugby CV.

The discovery of Jones at outside centre has been pivotal in this improvement, with the Stormer giving Scotland a consistent threat in one of the more important attacking positions.

You can play a limited, power-based game with a good pack and decent half-backs. Forwards can pick and go, half-backs can kick the corners and you can line up one-out runners to your heart’s content, but to have a full armoury of attacking weapons at your disposal, you need to be able to link your midfield with your outside backs.

Jones is just the type of dual-threat weapon that Scotland needed at 13, capable of gouging defences as a carrier but also opening up the game with measured passes and quick decision-making on the gain-line. If you need evidence of what such an outside centre can do for your attacking prospects, look no further than the improvements England have made as an offensive force since they identified Jonathan Joseph as their preferred outside centre.

Given the attacking verve that Glasgow Warriors like to play with under the tutelage of Townsend, it would seem like the Glasgow head coach has the perfect foundation laid to come in and continue the recent successes of the national team.

Furthermore, Cotter has re-energised Scotland’s fans. 

The Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) filled Murrayfield for all three of their home Six Nations games this year, including a sell-out – for the first time ever – against Italy. Tries, attacking rugby and a squad full of self-belief don’t just help you win games, they also help you sell tickets.

There really is no doubt that the Scotland side that Cotter is leaving behind is in far better shape than the one he inherited, or that rugby is in a healthier position in Scotland because of his hiring.

In an ideal world, the Kiwi would have the opportunity to continue his work with Scotland and see just how far he could take them, but with home-grown coaching intellectual property, such as that that Townsend brings, not growing on trees in Scotland, it’s an understandable call from the SRU.

Nevertheless, Cotter leaves quite the legacy with Scotland, despite a short stint, and his fingerprints will linger over the current side for quite some time to come.

There is no need for Townsend to attempt to reinvent the wheel with this side, he does not need to draft in a raft of young players to reinvigorate an ageing group and leaders, such as Stuart Hogg and Jonny Gray, are already in place and can be relied upon for years to come.

Townsend has the foundations in place and the tools at his disposal to maintain Scotland’s upward trajectory and for that reason alone, Cotter should be remembered as one of the most impactful coaches in Scottish rugby history.

Montpellier have got themselves a good one, that’s for sure.

by Alex Shaw