Scotland patched up but ready for Vern Cotter's goodbye
Head coach Vern Cotter paid tribute to his medical staff for helping ensure a raft of Twickenham casualties were fit enough to be named in his last ever Scotland team.
Full-back Stuart Hogg, wing Tommy Seymour and No.8 Ryan Wilson have all come through concussion protocols, while stand-off Finn Russell, centre Huw Jones and lock Richie Gray have all shaken off knocks to be selected in a side which contains just one change, with Ross Ford replacing Fraser Brown at hooker.
Scotland end their Six Nations campaign against Italy at BT Murrayfield on Saturday lunchtime, with a second-place finish still an achievable goal on what will be Cotter’s last act in the job before returning to France as coach of Montpellier next season.
The Kiwi again attempted to deflect any attention away from himself and said that the injury concerns of the week had clouded out any pangs of poignancy.
“There’s a great team, the medical staff and coaching staff have all worked extremely hard,” said Cotter.
“I was probably sweating more on who I could put in it [than feeling any emotion]. 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 there was more a worry about whether we could put some of our key players out there.
“It’s a bit of a relief that we’re able to name Ryan, Stuart and Tommy.”
Brown, who was yellow carded early in last weekend’s harrowing 61-21 loss to England at Twickenham, is relegated to the bench with Ford to win his 107th cap – two short of Chris Paterson’s record. Centre Matt Scott will have the opportunity to get his first taste of this year’s Six Nations as he takes his place among the replacements after Mark Bennett’s tournament was ended with a knee and arm injury.
Scotland can record a best ever finish of second in the championship if they can notch a bonus point win over the Italians, Wales beat France in Paris without a bonus point and England defeat Ireland to wrap up the Grand Slam in Dublin.
“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,” explained Cotter.
“So today was really the only day we’ve trained as a full team. We’ve obviously been through necessary lineout calls and defence. But, because it is towards the end of the competition, rest and recovery becomes more important than trying anything new.”
Asked if the players will discuss putting in one last big performance for their departing coach, Cotter replied: “No, they’re not allowed to. They’ve got plenty of other things to think about. First and foremost is playing for themselves and the people that support them. We would like to see them put in a great performance they can be proud of.”
The close to unchanged side has the opportunity to make amends for the agony of that thrashing by England but Cotter said: “There’s a lot of emotional things after the game against England. We were first and foremost disappointed that the game turned out the way it did. We know England are a very good team.
“We came unstuck early with the yellow card and injuries, and we were frustrated that we couldn’t hold them back.”
Cotter was drawn into a modicum of reflection on his largely successful time in the job when asked to assess the improvement the team has made under his guidance and said: “I would do the question an injustice if I answered it briefly. It’s a whole dynamic of how a team and people grow, so I could be here for a long time talking about that.
“The experience, the training, the testing under pressure, the decision making, it’s all part of a team performance.
“I think, first and foremost, you start with culture. Which is, in fact, your mindset. I’m laughing as I say that because somebody once said ‘Vern Cotter likes to talk about his mindset and skill set. We don’t particularly like his word set!’ I can understand that. It’s not particularly flash.
“But how you develop your game is about how skilful you become. If you are more skilful, the more options you have. If you get faster and more physical, the more options you have.
“And then you need something to keep you earthed, which is your culture and your beliefs – a lot of things we’ve worked on over the three years.”
Cotter noted that two years ago, in his first Six Nations, Scotland went into the final match without a win and ended up with a whitewash as they were well beaten by title-chasing Ireland. This time the Scots have already achieved the coach’s target of two wins but he said he was wary of Italy, who inflicted the most disappointing loss of that Wooden Spoon year, resulting in a bit of damage to the coaches box at Murrayfield.
“The memory of that game keeps us grounded. Just for the record, I didn’t break the door,” said Cotter with a chuckle.
“That was a tough day. I think we all got something from that. Of course, we’re very aware of what Italy are capable of doing, so we have to make sure the scenario runs our way.”