When Vern Cotter was told in the autumn that Scotland would not be renewing his contract as coach, the New Zealander remarked with typical understatement that he was disappointed. As his side go into the final weekend of the Six Nations in sight of finishing second, he is not alone.
When Cotter took over in the summer of 2014, Scotland had won four Six Nations matches in as many years, three against Italy. Although he started with a whitewash, they have since defeated France, Ireland and Wales and victory over Italy at Murrayfield in Saturday’s early kick-off at 12.30 would mean they had won more matches in a campaign than they had lost for only the second time since Italy joined the tournament, the first coming in 2006.
“The way the team are playing and the results we are getting show how massive Vern’s impact has been,” said the Scotland hooker Ross Ford, who will win his 107th cap. “He has had a huge influence on all of us through what he asks of players, the work ethic he has instilled in us and the way he carries himself. I have a massive respect for him.”
Cotter, who is taking over from Jake White at Montpellier in the summer and being replaced by Gregor Townsend, saw Scotland denied a semi-final in the 2015 World Cup when Australia were awarded a disputed penalty in the final minutes and although they conceded 61 points to England at Twickenham last weekend, they have their highest number of contenders for a place in the Lions squad in the professional era.
“He is certainly leaving Scotland in a better state than he found it,” said the former captain, Andy Nicol. “The players have developed in his three years and the team is playing better. He has done a great job and never mind Twickenham, victory over Italy would make it a great Six Nations. Gregor will be taking over a really good squad and the future looks bright.”
Scotland have improved markedly in attack under Cotter. Two tries against Italy, who have only once this year prevented their opponents from securing a try bonus point would take them to 12 for the tournament, beating their record of 11 which they set last year. They have already scored as many in the past two Six Nations as they did in the four before Cotter arrived.
“We want to send Vern off on a high but we cannot get distracted from what we need to do on the field,” said the fly-half, Finn Russell. “I was not part of the setup before Vern arrived, so I cannot speak about what happened previously, but we have come so far under him. We are fifth in the world rankings, our highest ever position, plus we have sold out every home game for the first time. It shows how good he has been for us.”
Italy are already condemned to the wooden spoon in Conor O’Shea’s first season in charge. Since winning at Murrayfield in 2015, they have lost all 11 matches in the tournament and only twice prevented their opponents from passing 30 points.
“I really believe in this group,” he said. “We are very close to being competitive. Our challenge is mostly mental. We have to win many small challenges, working minute by minute. After a season in Italy, I have seen some progress in the training process, but there is still much to improve.”
Cotter said he did not want to talk about his time with Scotland until after the Six Nations and has told his players not to. “I just want them to turn the frustration from Twickenham into a positive and put in a performance they can be proud of. Nobody was happy with what happened last week and this is an opportunity against an innovative team that is improving.”