Scotland v Fiji: Not-So-Stern Vern Cotter embraces return to old stomping ground

He's glad to be back and glad his team don't have to face Finn Russell on Saturday

Vern Cotter is enjoying the challenge of helping Fiji battle against the odds. Image: Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Vern Cotter is enjoying the challenge of helping Fiji battle against the odds. Image: Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

WITH his imposing frame, glassy-eyed stare and no-nonsense approach to the business of coaching a rugby team, he came to be known as Stern Vern Cotter round these parts during his three years as Scotland coach between the summers of 2014 and 2017. Fair, amenable but not exactly cuddly.

It was the same man who met the Scottish press yesterday afternoon, but a conspicuously more relaxed version (still not cuddly) – which is perhaps what happens when you move out of the Murrayfield bubble and end up the head coach of the Fijian national team, where love of the game rather than corporate messaging is the central philosophy.

Having overseen a period of steady and tangible progress, which included Scotland coming within a questionable refereeing decision of reaching the 2015 World Cup semi-finals, the New Zealander is sure of a warm reception at Murrayfield this weekend.


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Many in Scottish rugby believe Cotter was moved on prematurely so that Gregor Townsend could take over as national team head coach five years ago, and more than a few will argue that bringing him back to help reinvigorate the side ahead of next year’s World Cup in France wouldn’t be a terrible idea.

But the man himself is in a different head space. He enjoys splitting his time between Fiji and the family farm in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty, he is enthused by the talent he sees coming through the new Drua Super Rugby franchise, and clearly relishes the challenge of helping make a supremely talented group of players overcome the odds to be genuinely competitive against the top teams on the planet.

Cotter is very obviously enjoying being back in Scotland, but he straight bats away any suggestion that a more permanent return to the country through reinstatement in his old job might be desirable for either party.

“It is the old saying in life of ‘never say never’ – but it is highly unlikely,” he says. “I’ll definitely come back to Scotland to go fishing and hunting in the Highlands, or to catch up with some friends, but professionally … rugby-wise … things have moved on.”

“I have some really good memories from here, for myself and my family,” he adds. “I am catching up with friends this week who I haven’t seen for a couple of years which is always very nice. As soon as I got out of the airport at Edinburgh it was so familiar. I was back in Scotland but coaching another team, but it is nice to be back.

“I’m heading down to the Borders tomorrow. I’m going to go shoot some clay birds. I’ve got half a day, so I’ll go get some fresh air, have a bacon and egg sandwich, and talk about the old days. It is funny how the years go past – it flies by so quickly.”

Cotter and Finn Russell started the Scotland sections of their careers on the same day, against the USA during the summer of 2014, and he confirms that he finds the mercurial stand-off’s exclusion from this Autumn’s Test series a real head scratcher.

“I can’t speak for anybody else, but I’m surprised given the player he is and what he’s contributed to Scottish rugby, it has been very good,” said the 60-year-old. “But that’s not my issue and if he’s not playing against us then that’s one less threat we have to worry about.

“We had a great relationship with Finn. I really enjoyed Finn. That was that era, there’s another one now,” he adds, when pressed on whether he ever found Russell hard to work with in the same way as Townsend clearly does.

 

Townsend’s problems with Russell must seem trivial to Cotter, who has to contend with having access to his overseas based players (over half his squad) for only very short periods of time on a very occasional basis during the course of a regular year, and this week he has had to contend with the extra disruption to his planning caused by Teti Tela, the only dedicated stand-off in his squad, losing his passport in France before flying to Edinburgh on nSunday night, meaning he didn’t arrive in the Scottish capital until Wednesday evening.

“We get to the airport on Sunday, and he goes: ‘I can ‘t find my passport’. And I say: ‘No, that’s a joke, mate!’,” explained Cotter. “So, he hauls everything out of his bag, rings the hotel, rings the bus. Doesn’t know where it is. He had to get a train from Toulouse up to Paris, he is a New Zealand passport holder so had to apply for an emergency passport. He has got it and coming this afternoon.

“It is incredibly frustrating when you want to drive a high-performance environment and you don’t have enough time together to get to the standard we want,” Cotter adds, referring to the general challenge of coaching Fiji. “We have to be very patient as we have the World Cup next year when we will have time.

“It’s the way it is. How we maximise our time at the moment to get the most out of it is the key.

“We have some great games coming up against Scotland, Ireland and the French Barbarians, so we’ll use those, then our European-based players will go back to their club, and we’ll be feeding them information through the guys I’ve got placed up here to go to the clubs and talk to them.

“We’ll get everyone together when Super Rugby finishes at the end of June, and then we’ve got three weeks to even it out, and then we go.

“We have three games in Fiji. I think we play Japan, Uruguay and Samoa, then shift to France. We have a game against France, a game against England, then go home and come back to France two weeks before our first match against Wales.”

As for Saturday’s match, Cotter is keen to manage expectations, and is at pains to stress that it is an early step in the journey he has described above.

“They do come together very quickly as they are so close, but you have our first five-eighth who lost his passport in France not with us [at the moment], you have visa issues, we didn’t get everybody with us until Monday night, and we have two injuries from a Sunday night game when Toulouse played Bordeaux,” he says.

“We effectively have two training sessions together before we play at the weekend [Tuesday and Wednesday], but on the positive side it is great for us to be given these two Tier One games [against Scotland this weekend and Ireland next weekend] before the World Cup. This is a great thing for us. It should just be a training run for them, but we will get something out of it.

“We want a performance where we can say we got the ball to the outside channels, beat defenders, and scored points. We don’t want to walk off the paddock saying we didn’t really do that. Hopefully we can get a chance to have a go.

“The theme is easy: you’ve got to dominate the structure to play unstructured rugby … we like unstructured rugby, it comes naturally. But you can’t do that if you don’t dominate the structure.

“It’s the fundamentals of the game. You can’t hide from having a decent set-piece, being able to be effective at ruck, and being able to keep the ball for multiple phases. So that is what we are focusing on.”

 

Interestingly, there are no players in the current Fijian squad who have become available under World Rugby’s new three-year stand-down law, with Cotter explaining that his focus is on helping promote the Fijian Drua franchise, which had its first Super Rugby campaign earlier this year.

Seta Tamanivalu played for the All Blacks and he played for Fiji in July, but other than that … I want to encourage growth on the island because they’ve never had a professional pathway,” he reasons. “It has always been a scout come from Rugby League in Australia or Racing in France to pick up a guy and put him in their academy. Now our coaches are identifying young players because they have to with a professional team that needs a supply of players. So, I’ve enjoyed that part of it.”

In contrast, Scottish Rugby – despite an established professional structure and tier one income – are actively embracing the new rule as a means of circumnavigating failures in its own development pathway. Jack Dempsey completed the switch from Australia to Scotland when he made his debut in the dark blue last weekend, and Townsend has confirmed that he is actively tracking other players who could make a similar move.


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About David Barnes 4028 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.

17 Comments

  1. Against Australia there were too many individual errors, which was the fault of that individual player, but it was Townsend who chose the players, prepared them, & set the overall playing strategy, so he has to ultimately take responsibility for the result. Kinghorn has been unfairly criticised as his abilities and frailties were known prior to this game, & he actually played better than should have been expected (at least in my opinion). The SRU pathway system has major flaws that needs to be urgently addressed, but I fear those responsible for it aren’t sufficiently aware of what is required, which isn’t helped by there being no systematic & accessible feedback & improvement process that involves all key stakeholders, including parents!

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  2. So Vern isn’t worried about Kinghorn at 10? To be honest I don’t think any opposition would be. Looking forward to seeing how Fiji have come on with Cotter. If I was Finn I’d tell the SRU blazers they can keep their jersey, and go off and make as much as possible in japan.

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  3. I do not understand these comparisons between Cotter and Townsend.
    I am sorry to annoy folks, but Cotter did not have a great record either.
    Not only Scotland but in the top 14 too.
    With formidable ressources at Clermont-Auvergne for quite some years, he/they won the Bouclier de Brennus once…

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    • With regard to Montpelier, well once in five years is better than nothing, if you get my drift, why it didn’t work is a bit like Malt Whisky, Laphroig works for some but I prefer Tomintoul, it’s lots of different factors coming together, the Chemistry if you like, not a great analogy but it was the first thing that came to mind.
      With regard to the comparison, consider the question: when Cotter took over was Scottish Rugby in a better place than when Townsend took over?
      I think most would say that following on from a couple of Australian Chancers who talked BS and produced it, it was in a dreadful state.
      If you accept that then it isn’t a surprise that the statistics show the picture of Townsend’s tenure as superior.
      That then leads to the question, has it improved with GT or in many respects stood still and like inflation in real terms arguably that means it has fallen or rather failed to make the progress that there should have been.

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    • What Vern did was brought credibility back to the National team. However it must be remembered it was after a times of real lows in results and performances. However his results were not great against tier 1 countries, Gregor has a far better record.

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      • I think I covered the points you have made, however what you haven’t addressed is the question would Cotter have made a better ‘fist’ of it than Townsend? That is the question I had hoped to generate.
        Would Cotter for instance have attempted to manipulate a Player into a position that initially he wasn’t selected for at International level, especially as that manipulation doesn’t seem to be working?
        Or would he have looked around for an existing and competent player in that position?
        Why the Kinghorn experiment when he had more than Russell and Hastings to consider, why the ‘ego’ trip of attempting to show that he is the Messiah and Russell is the naughty naughty boy.
        Would Cotter have left Russell out of the squad with the remark that he wasn’t showing ‘Form’ and as an aside do you honestly consider that a Top14 French side would tolerate a ‘lazy underperforming’ Fly-half?
        Those are the questions that a great many Scottish Rugby supporters are asking, the question is why aren’t they being asked in Roseburn Street?

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    • We came within a dubious penalty decision of making the World Cup semi finals in 2015, we looked lucky to have qualified to play in Japan in 2019. That’s quite a contrast.

      Cotter may not be the answer, but neither is Townsend.

  4. ‘Not exactly cuddly’ gets results. I wish he would stay on after the match, resume his post and we could all wake up – just like Bobby in Dallas – to discover that the last five years were just a bad dream. His warm, positive words re Finn Russell are indicative of the cluster-shambles that Townsend has brought upon himself – and sadly the rest of us.

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  5. Nice to listen to an adult speaking. Contrasts with the petulant, over-promoted know-all who hasn’t achieved anything of note yet at international level (apart from learning lots of useful lessons that is).

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  6. Admittedly from a distance but I felt uneasy about much of Cotter’s departure, I had expected some sort of ‘thank you’ from the SRU, a gesture at the end of his last game in charge, perhaps a rendition of ‘Now is the Hour’ as a nod to the farewell song that used to be heard especially when an All Black touring side played the final game against the BaBa’s: I know it’s my sentimental side, but nothing, not a word of thanks over the Tannoy, Zilch.
    If I thought that a Fijian/Cotter victory would be a catalyst to turn around Scotland’s 6N and World Cup chances I think I could suffer that, we’ve suffered enough anyway.
    Well if that were to be the case in a strange way it might be payback to Cotter for the fashion that MrD told him [without any justification as far as many of us could see] that he was ‘Not wanted on Voyage’ a message the Fat Controller would recognise, but no doubt his Jotters were offered up for good reason before he ‘lucked in’ to to Roseburn Street.

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    • Couldn’t agree more. Whatever the result, Cotter will play his hand to maximum advantage and sadly his men will be better drilled, disciplined and motivated than ours.

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  7. Yes We will long regret replacing Cotter with Townsend. Absolutely abysmal decision. We are going backwards at a rate of knots.

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  8. “In contrast, Scotland are actively embracing the new rule as a means of circumnavigating failures in their own development pathway”

    I did not realise Matt Fagerson and Magnus Bradbury were examples of a failing pathway but each to their own.

    Good to see Cotter doing well with Fiji and look forward to them showing Scotland what an attractive style of rugby looks like, In my eyes he has always been a better coach than Townsend.

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  9. Aye, Cotter is the real deal. Scotland took a big and irreversible step backwards when they “released” him.
    Under Townsend the trajectory has not been upwards nor consistent.

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    • Cotter was the last coach to earn a wooden spoon for Scotland after being humiliated at Murrayfield by Italy. Our finest 6N under him included the abject 40pt hammering at Twickenham. His crowning glory, the RWC run, involved losing to Australia and SA and beating Japan (3-day turnaround), USA and Samoa (barely, after our defence dissolved and we were roundly outplayed).

      I think Cotter is a v good coach and was good for Scotland but he gets more legendary every season he isn’t coaching us.

      It’s easy to cherry pick and construct a narrative. Scotlands 6N record and record against SH improved under Townsend – that isn’t to absolve him of the failings in his own tenure btw.

      Does anyone doubt he’d pick Dempsey? Well he ditched Barclay for Hardie before the RWC who’d never played a game of rugby in Scotland in his life, so I reckon so yeah.

      Time we look to the future and stop harping back. We’re all Scotland fans and shouldn’t be team-Townsend or team-Cotter like school children.

      Townsend has run out of road, we need to replace him with a world class coach. I will never support anyone against Scotland no matter who the coach is (even Matt Williams).

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