MOST international coaches leave their posts under a cloud and at a stroke. Vern Cotter, by contrast, has enjoyed a long goodbye to Scotland, and departs with the vast majority of supporters here wishing he had stayed for more than his three years.
The New Zealander is still under contract for another couple of months before he returns to French club rugby with Montpellier, but Saturday’s 29-0 win over Italy was his last match in charge of Scotland. At the end of the game, the Murrayfield crowd responded with the sort of emotional outpouring normally reserved for retiring captains; and Cotter, normally so self-contained, was emotional too, wiping back a tear after a brief TV interview on the pitch.
He leaves with Scotland fifth in the World Rugby rankings, their highest ever position and one which ensures they will be in the second group of seeds for the 2019 Rugby World Cup. That is a bald statistical indication of how well he has done since taking over in the summer of 2014, but the real evidence of the progress he has wrought is in the way the team now plays.
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Scotland are by no means the finished article right now - that much was painfully obvious nine days ago at Twickenham, when they lost by a record score for the Calcutta Cup - but they are far ahead of where they were when Cotter took over from interim coach Scott Johnson. There is more self-belief; more determination; more mental rigour and physical fight; more consistency too.
Above all - perhaps curiously, given the coach’s deeply serious public persona - there is enjoyment. This Scotland squad loves to entertain by playing creative, attacking rugby, and the self-confidence they display in doing so is a stark and very welcome contrast to the hesitation and doubt that dogged them not so long ago.
Cotter had a long hello to the new job, agreeing to join in 2013 but insisting he would see out his contract with Clermont first, and when he eventually took over he decided that enjoyment was one of the key qualities that needed to return to the team’s play.
“The first things we worked on were composure and enjoying what you're doing,” he explained on Saturday. “There are a lot of things that have progressed throughout the last three years - the way we play, the way we want to control the ball, the way we try to get the ball back. Winning three games in this Six Nations give you an idea of what we’ve been trying to do.”
He won three games in his first tour as well, beating the USA, Canada and Argentina before losing to South Africa at the end of a gruelling schedule. His first Six Nations was a trying experience as the team were whitewashed, but a promising build-up to the 2015 World Cup led to a campaign which ended only when Scotland lost to the Wallabies by a single point in the quarter-final.
Last year’s Six Nations began underwhelmingly with defeats by England and Wales, but then came a win in Italy and another at home to France before Ireland again proved too strong. It was the turn of both the French and the English to be too strong this year, but the improvement was maintained with three home wins - an achievement that was particularly commendable given the loss to injury both before and during the tournament of some of the squad’s most important players.
“I think we have a good group of guys who work very hard,” was the verdict of captain John Barclay when asked to sum up the state of the squad as Cotter prepares to hand over to Gregor Townsend. “We had a lot of injuries in this championship, big injuries, and we lost some really good guys.
“The guys are on the right path. I've been involved for the last 18 months and you can definitely feel that it's a different group now. Other teams are improving all the time as well, so we've got to make sure we’re doing that as well.”
It was last summer when Cotter learned he would not be offered a new contract by Scottish Rugby, and since then he has presided over eight Tests, with wins over Argentina and Georgia coming in the autumn as well as another narrow loss to Australia. “That was the deal, so we just get on with it and move on,” he added.
“We wanted to do the eight games from November as best we could and I think the boys really stuck to their task. I'm very proud of the way they turned up week in, week out and gave the best of themselves.
“They’ve done really well and that's a testament to the quality of this group. They knew the coaches were changing but they stuck to it. I’m proud of the men that they are to be able to do that.
“I'm looking forward to seeing them kick on. That's where I get my enjoyment.”