As Vern Cotter announced the final Scotland side of his three-year tenure as coach, the New Zealander was taking a characteristically hard-nosed approach to Saturday’s concluding Six Nations game against Italy. He did not want to talk about his legacy, had no intention of letting emotions intrude, and did not feel the time was right to reflect on the past three years. The past few days have, he said, “just been business as usual”.
On the face of it, that is exactly what it looked like. Cotter on Thursday named a starting line-up that included just one change, with the Scotland coach falling back on the extra grunt and experience offered by hooker Ross Ford, giving last week’s yellow-carded Fraser Brown a spell on the replacements naughty step.
Incredibly, Ryan Wilson, Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour have all been passed fit to play, after sustaining head injuries against England, although none resumed contact work until Thursday. The injured Mark Bennett is replaced on the bench by Matt Scott.
Although the 61-21 thrashing at Twickenham has knocked the wind out of Scotland’s sails, the outcome of this final match of the season and of Cotter’s regime is still of huge importance. For a start, a bonus point win could see Scotland finish on second place, their highest finish in the Six Nations. There are still Lions places up for grabs, and a win is crucial to ensure Scotland remain in the top eight of the world rankings and thereby secure a World Cup seeding.
Yet for all Cotter’s reluctance to begin looking in the rear-view mirror until Sunday, there was an inevitable drift towards an appreciation of his time at the helm.
Notwithstanding the fact that Cotter is the first Scotland coach of the professional era to win more than 50 per cent of games, would, for instance, defeat by an Italy team who have led at half-time in three of their four Six Nations games so far mean that Scotland are back to square one? Given that spectre, are the players focusing on ‘doing it for Vern’?
“No, they’re not allowed to,” shot back Cotter. “They’ve got plenty of other things to think about. First and foremost is playing for themselves and the people that support them. We would like to see them put in a great performance they can be proud of.”
It helps – if that is the word – that the last time Scotland played Italy at Murrayfield, two years ago, Cotter’s side ended the game with 13 men and suffered a devastating last-minute defeat that doomed them to the wooden spoon. “The memory of that keeps us grounded,” admitted Cotter. “That was a tough, tough day. I think we all got something from that. Of course, we’re very aware of what they’re capable of doing, and they’ve proved this season that they are a good team which is improving.”
Cotter believes that loss and the subsequent wooden spoon were the unlikely launch pad for the success that has followed. Like last week’s painful defeat at Twickenham, he says that the character forged in responding to adversity is what has allowed Scotland to become so resilient and make such strides over the past three years.
“That whitewash was the driving factor behind a lot of things that we changed, because we saw very clearly the need to develop. Moving from there, I thought the World Cup was really successful. As much as we hated it, that first Six Nations helped us.
“It taught us that you can turn frustration into positive movement and thinking. That’s the key thing going into the game against Italy – we know you cannot get a result in five minutes. We’re going to have to work our way through – roll our sleeves up and work hard and resolutely through the whole 80 minutes if we want that win.”
Cotter contrasted the current situation with the final game of his first Six Nations two years ago, when Scotland had already lost four games in the Championship under Cotter and would be battered 40-10 at Murrayfield as Ireland chased the points tally that would give them the title. This time around, the introduction of bonus points mean it is Scotland who are chasing a hefty win, as they need to score four tries to stand a chance of second place.
“It’s a little bit different, isn’t it, because two years ago we were sitting here without a win on the last game and Ireland were looking for a bonus point to finish,” said Cotter. “First and foremost we want to win against Italy. If winning becomes a possibility or a probability, then we can look at a bonus point as well, which will help us improve our position. I’m just focusing on what we can do going into the game.”
That remains the Cotter credo: look after the little things and the big things will fall into place.
Scotland XV to start against Italy: Hogg (Glasgow); Seymour (Glasgow), Jones (Stormers), Dunbar (Glasgow), Visser (Harlequins); Russell (Glasgow), Price (Glasgow); Reid (Glasgow), Ford (Edinburgh), Fagerson (Glasgow), R Gray (Toulouse), J Gray (Glasgow), Barclay (Scarlets, capt), Watson (Edinburgh), Wilson (Glasgow).
Replacements: Brown (Glasgow), Dell (Edinburgh), Berghan (Edinburgh), Swinson (Glasgow), Du Preez (Edinburgh), Pyrgos (Glasgow), Weir (Edinburgh), Scott (Gloucester).