Tough Times Ahead for Vern Cotter

If there's one certainty about the Six Nations it is that the emotional journey of Scottish fans will swing between despair and ecstasy and Scotland's 51-3 defeat to Wales last Saturday brought the curtain down on another campaign which ran the usual gambit of emotions...

If there's one certainty about the Six Nations it is that the emotional journey of Scottish fans will swing between despair and ecstasy and Scotland's 51-3 defeat to Wales last Saturday brought the curtain down on another campaign which ran the usual gambit of emotions.

Probably the emotion that was felt the most by Scottish fans was anger. Anger at the team, anger at the now outgoing interim team manager Scott Johnson, anger at the Murrayfield pitch, anger at the SRU and anger at the same mistakes being repeated again and again.

With Scott Johnson moving into the role of Director of Rugby at the Scottish Rugby Union (maddening I know) this leaves new man Vern Cotter to take the reins with just over a year till the 2015 Rugby World Cup and he has quite a job on his hands.

For all of Scott Johnson's talk of giving Cotter more players to work with and offering greater strength in depth, the Kiwi will be managing a squad that for the last 18 months has had no continuity, no structure, has suffered some of its worst defeats in recent memory and will be low on confidence following two pretty awful years all after a previous World Cup where the team had failed to get past the group stage for the first time.

Since the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand Scotland have only won eight of the past 28 matches while also dealing with the retirement of key players such as Chris Paterson, Mike Blair and Nathan Hines and the fact that they will now technically be on their third head coach/manager in as many years.

There have been many low points in Scottish Rugby history, not just in the pro-era, but the last few years have to be up there with the very worst. It's not just the number of defeats but the manner that is the worry and frustration with the fact that Scotland do have a more than decent starting XV if they can actually get them all out on the pitch at the same time.

A back three of Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland and Tim Visser allied to a centre pairing of the powerful Alex Dunbar and classy Matt Scott can threaten most defences in the world and has more than able deputies such as Sean Lamont, Max Evans, Duncan Taylor, Tommy Seymour, Dougie Fife (who is a better player than his debut showed) and Jack Cuthbert ready to slot in.

Scotland still possess sufficient quality up front to cause any team a headache and any starting pack with the likes of Richie Gray, Jim Hamilton, David Denton, John Barclay and Euan Murray in it has a pretty tasty look to it but even an area of traditional Scottish strength has had its problems in the last 18 months.

The front row has proven a headache with Ross Ford's throwing at the lineout, which was always an Achilles heel, becoming more of a weapon for the opposition than Scotland. However Scott Lawson's arrival seemed to arrest the slide somewhat and Scotland's lineout was starting to improve as the tournament went on. Meanwhile in the scrum Ryan Grant hasn't found the form he showed last season and Moray Low has not developed into the scrummager that many had hoped. Euan Murray is prone to injuries and Jon Welsh doesn't seem to be anywhere near the Scotland squad though Geoff Cross did show up well after coming on against Italy.

In the back row there are plenty of fine individual players with Denton putting in a number of tough performances but under Johnson there was never a settled combination and certainly none that was as strong as the "Killer B's" of 2010 or the White/Hogg/Taylor trio of 2006. It is no coincidence that Scotland's big wins in recent years have come with a genuine openside in the starting XV and hopefully the arrival of Vern Cotter will see the return of both Ross Rennie and Barclay to the matchday squad on a regular basis.

At halfback Greig Laidlaw's struggles with the boot have impacted on his ability to run the team and with the more experienced and much stronger all-round ability of Chris Cusiter available he might find himself on the bench before too long with Duncan Weir having shown enough to suggest that he will be the starting ten for the foreseeable future.

Cotter will also have to contend with the fact that with just two professional teams in Scotland he will always be struggling to find players in certain positions if injuries strike and with both pro-teams seemingly more willing to sign "project" players or decent overseas pros with Scottish heritage it will become harder and harder for young homegrown talent to make their mark and this will have an impact on the development of the game from grassroots level.

Chief Executive of Aberdeen Asset Management Martin Gilbert's recent comments that they'd be willing to sponsor a third pro team in Aberdeen have been welcomed by many Scottish rugby fans and if it was to happen it would go a long way to helping Scotland get back to a point where they can compete consistently on the international stage.

Yet until that happens Vern Cotter is staring at a seemingly impossible task of not only ensuring Scotland get past the group stage at next year's Rugby World Cup but also become re-recognised as a genuine force on the international stage again.


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