TO the surprise of absolutely no-one, Vern Cotter declined to indulge in tearful farewells or self-aggrandising speeches yesterday after naming the last Scotland team of his three-year stint as head coach. The New Zealander has never been comfortable with talking about his own role in the progress made by the team, preferring to deal with practicalities – and this week there were more than a few practicalities to be sorted out before he could settle on the squad to play Italy tomorrow.
The lengthy injury list reported after the defeat by England has now been cleared up, with Mark Bennett being the only casualty from that match. But the fact that Stuart Hogg, Ryan Wilson and Tommy Seymour had head-injury-assessment protocols to complete restricted their ability to train earlier this week, while Finn Russell and Huw Jones have also been carrying knocks from the Calcutta Cup match.
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The recovery of those players has allowed Cotter to name a team that shows just a single change from Twickenham, with Ross Ford returning at hooker in place of Fraser Brown, who was yellow-carded last week and was absent from training on Tuesday to attend the disciplinary hearing in London which decided no further punishment for his offence was needed. There is one alteration among the substitutes too, with Gloucester centre Matt Scott coming in as expected for Bennett.
Scotland could finish second in the table for the first time since the Five Nations became six if they win and other results go their way, and that would be the ideal way for Cotter to sign off . But he insisted he has had no time this week to think about leaving on a high or to get nostalgic about his time in the post.
“I was probably sweating more on who I could put in it,” Cotter said when he was asked if he had felt emotional while selecting his last team. “We had a number of players who we weren’t sure would be able to take the field this weekend, and we couldn’t really name the team until this morning. So more a worry about whether we could put some of our key players out there, and it’s a bit of a relief that we’re able to name Ryan, Stuart and Tommy.
“We haven’t been able to do anything with a full team because of return-to-play protocols, while Finn Russell and Huw Jones had niggles in knees and ankles. So today was really the only day we’ve trained as a full team.
“We’ve obviously been through necessary line-out calls and defence. But, because it’s towards the end of the competition, rest and recovery becomes more important than trying anything new.”
Scotland will definitely finish as runners-up to England if they win with a bonus-point, Ireland lose to the new champions, and Wales beat France without a bonus point. Even the possibility of that happening is testament to the improvement made under Cotter, whose first Six Nations season in 2015 saw the team whitewashed.
“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,” the coach continued. In the end Ireland did get the bonus and became champions on points differential. “First and foremost we want to win. If winning becomes a possibility or a probability, then we can look at a bonus point as well.”
“The first thing we identified [after taking over] was that we were contributing – and we still do at times – to the results that went against us. Sometimes that was lacking composure.
“Discipline was an issue, because that meant teams with big and more powerful forward packs could go into their preferred plays off line-outs. So we worked on not giving the opposition what they wanted and doing what we wanted.
“We’ve got some good players. And the tries we’ve scored out wide have shown that – three pretty good tries against England show that. But we didn’t get the other things right against England, that’s the only problem.
“But there is a good group here, good talent with a work ethic – and just good people. That’s how you build teams, with those types of qualities.”