VERN COTTER may now have moved on to new challenges but the Kiwi’s influence was still evident at Murrayfield yesterday, specifically in the front-row battle. Both Rory Sutherland and the man he packed down against, Mohamed Haouas, benefited from Cotter’s input in the fledgling phase of their careers. The two had a day of vastly differing fortunes.
Sutherland went into the match with his stock high after outstanding performances in the opening three Guinness Six Nations weekends. The 27-year-old has shown his resilience in recovering from a career threatening injury to feature in discussion about British & Irish Lions selection prospects. Tadgh Furlong, Kyle Sinckler and Giosue Zilocchi do not fit easily into the shrinking violet category, but all met their match in the robust Borderer, who earned his first international cap under Cotter against Ireland in 2016.
In the interim, he spent three months virtually confined to bed, a situation that was unquestionably frustrating for a professional athlete. It may also explain the relish with which he is now attacking every rugby assignment.
His return to action appears to have been an opportunity to expend that pent up frustration and to move closer to fulfilling the potential that had him tipped for a career in the professional game while he was under the tutelage of his club coach at Gala, a certain George Graham – a man who knows more than a little about the dark arts of the front-row.
Sutherland’s opponent against the Grand Slam chasing French was Haouas. A 25-year-old with an intriguing back story and a debt of gratitude to Cotter, who gave him his debut in Montpellier’s European Cup defeat against Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun in December 2017.
The tight-head is a product of a broken home in the rough streets of Montpellier’s Petit Bard district. Its landscape is dominated by 1960s high rise flats and unemployment is close to 80%. Rugby has saved Haouas from a life of crime.
Haouas was 15 when he was encouraged to try rugby by an association that promotes sport in low-income areas. The association also advised him to join the navy. While there, he earned selection for the French team that finished third in the military World Cup.
He linked up with Montpellier, where club officials saw something worth supporting. However, his life began to unravel after he returned to his civilian surroundings. Six years ago, he was arrested for a series of shop burglaries and spent time on remand.
Haouas signed an academy contract in 2016 before moving on to a full deal that ties him to Montpellier until 2024. Keeping the player under control was far from easy, and on more than one occasion the club had to negotiate the prop’s release from prison. However, with a new direction in life, he was able to leave behind a chaotic existence.Error, group does not exist! Check your syntax! (ID: 27)
Like Sutherland, he brings athleticism, a physical presence and an indomitable reluctance to take a backwards step. There was also a feeling that he had his temperament fully in check. However, as he proved yesterday, weaknesses can still surface in the heat of the moment.
Scotland had the advantage in the early scrums, with France underpowered after flanker Francois Cros was yellow carded in four minutes for a dangerous tackle on Grant Gilchrist. But even when it was eight versus eight, there was evidence that the Scot had the better of his rival. Two free and a penalty kicks suggested that the home pack had the upper hand overall in the scrum.
Further evidence that Sutherland was winning his personal battle came as the pair rose from a set-piece. Haouas eyeballed the Scot, evidently trying to intimidate him – or perhaps it was a concession. As the clock ticked towards the half hour, Sutherland appeared to have an added spring in his step and his body language implied that he was enjoying the joust.
And, while Sutherland went on to confirm that provided he retains current levels of fitness, he is the long term solution at loose head, the afternoon unravelled quickly for Haouas. After a tangle with Nick Haining, he took exception to the intervention of Jamie Ritchie and landed a punch on the Scottish flanker, leaving referee Paul Williams no choice but to show the Frenchman a red card.
The introduction of the highly-rated Demba Bamba early in the second half did nothing to halt the dominance of Sutherland, who continued to impose himself as the game progressed. And by the time he left the fray in 58 minutes to be replaced by Allan Dell, he had confirmed his status as the form loose head in the Guinness Six Nations.
For his part, Haouas spent the rest of the match in the stand. And, as soon as the full-time whistle sounded, showed his pace off the mark as he darted up the tunnel. Not the way he had hoped to end his afternoon.