Six Nations 2015: Vern Cotter’s Scotland could win title

Our man in Edinburgh considers Scotland's rapid rise under their Kiwi head coach and what the future could hold in 2015

Scotland head coach Vern Cotter Photo: Jason O'Callaghan

New Scotland can win titles

We must not forget how the 2013 Autumn Series ended as Scotland were nilled by South Africa and then beaten by Australia, or how they performed against England earlier this year as the Auld Enemy also nilled them on the infamously poor former surface at BT Murrayfield, and there was that disastrous rout to Wales in Cardiff after Stuart Hogg was red carded in the first half, to end the 2014 Six Nations.

Can a team change so dramatically in less than a year, from the whipping boys of the championship—Italy aside—to become a serious contender for the title?

The answer has to be yes. Partly because of head coach Vern Cotter and partly the great changes happening inside Scottish Rugby. With many of the old guard seemingly out in the cold, this “New Scotland” now have a team of youngsters but, thanks to the great work done in Glasgow by Gregor Townsend and his staff, they are used to playing matches at a high level, with high stakes, and under massive pressure to succeed on a regular basis. An aspect not to be underestimated: many of the current core squad are now used to winning big games.

Assessing their opposition, England are losing their cockiness after two narrow defeats at HQ against the All Blacks and Springboks, and the dissent from fans and pundits is kicking in. Wales still struggle to find the chemistry that helped them with winning the Grand Slam in 2012, which seemed so far away as they struggled to beat 14-men Fiji last weekend.

Italy have the same, old problems, and, under the direction of Phillipe Saint-Andre, France could again be the favourites for the title, but that doesn’t mean they’re likely to win.

You can never write off last year’s winners, Ireland. It will be an unforgivable mistake to think that without Brian O’Driscoll the Irish are not competitive enough to win the Six Nations, and maybe even the Rugby World Cup.

So, can Scotland win the title in 2014? Hell yes! It would have been safer to say “Why not?”, but the spirit put in on Saturday as they narrowly lost to the New Zealand suggests the risk is worthwhile if they continue their rapid rise.

Impressive, but room for improvement

Scotland faced the world champions, the mighty All Blacks, and stuck to their game plan: trying to keep the ball and showing confidence in their own attacking philosophy.

Don’t buy into what some might say about Steve Hansen going for a “second-string” squad or, even worse, he chose to play a weakened team because he “disrespects Scotland”. If you wear the most famous black jersey in rugby you thoroughly deserve to and, if you are chosen to play for them, you are one of the best players in New Zealand, if not the world.

Scotland kept the world champions within touching distance for 74 minutes. They played some good rugby: going through the phases, even inside their own 22—in pure Clermont style—making very few mistakes when in possession, keeping their coolness when they went 5-0 down after just 10 minutes, bouncing back, and even having the chance, in the last quarter of the game, to take the lead when captain Greig Laidlaw—who confirmed that moving to Gloucester this summer has been the right thing to do— missed the kick that could have given them a two points advantage.

Scotland have been impressive, but not perfect so far, and there are a few issues still to address. Especially in the scrum where there is room for improvement. That said, in a very short time, Cotter has been able to give the Dark Blues a winning mentality. He has also helped them raise their confidence, and develop an attack that has caused problems to all five nations they have played since the summer, the All Blacks included—the very things Scotland have lacked for too long.

More front needed from forwards

Scotland may have some issues in the front row but, on Saturday, Edinburgh Rugby loosehead prop Alasdair Dickinson was majestic in the early scrums, forcing All Blacks tighthead prop Charlie Faumuina to give away a couple of penalties. Looking ahead to the Six Nations, the back row is strong with the emergence of London Irish flanker Blair Cowan, Glasgow Warriors young number 8 Adam Ashe—who impressed once again—and Warriors blindside flanker Rob Harley, who showed plenty of confidence against His Majesty Richie McCaw.

The battle for the openside for next year’s Six Nations could involve players such as Kelly Brown, John Barclay, and Chris Fusaro, but Cotter has put faith in Cowan since handing him a debut in the summer and he hasn’t let the team down. Cowan’s spirited efforts around the park, his versatility and ability to adapt seem to be the decisive factors in Cotter’s selection. Some were doubtful of the 28-year-old’s selection when they read his name on the team sheet for the Argentina match, but the New Zealand-born flanker proved them wrong for the second week in a row against the All Blacks.

Minor back issues

Two years ago, Tim Visser made his debut with Scotland scoring two tries against Fiji in June during the 2012 summer tour, and then made his bow at the Highland Cathedral scoring a brace in the 51-22 defeat against the All Blacks in that year’s autumn series.

Back then, there was only one man for the Scotland No. 11 jersey—he was the best wing in Scotland; the only option. Then New Zealand-born Sean Maitland, with his Scottish heritage, was plucked from the Crusaders to join Glasgow Warriors. Former Ulster wing Tommy Seymour started to wrestle his way into the Warriors team and, slowly but inexorably, Visser started to go down on the Scotland pecking order. A bad leg injury against Benetton Treviso in PRO12 last season ruled him out of the squad for the Autumn Tests and this year’s Six Nations and that was the beginning of Visser’s problems.

Cotter said that he enjoyed watching the players play for each other and named the same starting XV in the two toughest matches of this Autumn Series, with Visser not in the 23. He has been paid back with two amazing performances, where the Warriors’ backs put both Argentina and New Zealand under serious pressure, notably causing headaches for the world champions’ defence after tearing apart the Pumas. If they can stay injury-free, Cotter has no reason to make changes to the current Glasgow Warriors-dominated backline.

Finn Russell, the Warriors stand-off, is the only question mark, making a couple of soft mistakes putting himself in danger against the All Blacks, but he is still relatively new to professional rugby after breaking into the Warriors first team late last season. Duncan Weir, his club-team mate, will not be the only contender for the 10 jersey in February. While Russell and Weir fight it out for a place in the Warriors side, Edinburgh’s Tom Heathcote has established himself as their first-choice 10 since moving from Bath in the summer, is growing in personality and developing his defensive skills under the Alan Solomons-Omar Mouneimne supervision. He could also be a valuable option.

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