Vern Cotter, Jason O’Halloran and Scotland’s RWC19 promise

Scotland surprised many by finishing the World Cup as the Northern Hemisphere team closest to earning a semi-final place, and their one point loss to Australia in the quarter final is only one reason why the country can be excited about their prospects over the next four-year cycle. Vern Cotter’s instalment as head coach did not immediately bear fruit in last year’s 6 Nations, but in stretches during the pool stage of October’s tournament glimpses of his characteristic style of play could be seen.

Over eight seasons at Clermont Auvergne, the Kiwi crafted an attacking side which – despite their repeated failure to live up to expectations on the biggest of stages – were capable of playing an irresistible brand of rugby. They looked to inject pace into play with strong running angles and clever offloading and passing, and the squads he had at his disposal were supremely skilled and enabled this gameplan. A strong set piece – he was able to call upon hookers such as John Smit, Mario Ledesma and Benjamin Kayser, as well as the supreme French line-out forward Julien Bonnaire – delivered quick ball to scrum-halves Pierre Mignoni and Morgan Parra, while Brock James, and latterly Camille Lopez, excelled at directing the strike runners outside (the likes of Nalaga, Rougerie, Byrne, Fofana and Sivivatu). The deceptive simplicity of their attacking success – based on running great angles into space and playing flat on the advantage line – belies the structure and excellent skills that underly it and make it successful.

We can see this in a few examples of tries from 2013-14, Cotter’s final season in charge in the Massif Central. In the first example, from a red zone ruck Wesley Fofana expertly identifies the gap in the defensive line between Castres left wing and the outside centre, and fades off his man onto James’ beautiful miss pass:

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The second and third tries are good examples of the fine line that Clermont under Cotter tread between expansiveness and and accuracy. The term running ‘downhill’ is often used in American sports, but has not yet established itself across the pond; it seems apt here to describe the way in which Benson Stanley gets in behind the Stade Français defence:

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The important aspects here are the way in which the centre transfers the ball to two hands as he goes to ground, and the attacking support line his outside man runs: both players enable the offload after contact, but in this case Stanley shows the discipline to hold on to the ball and separate well to provide good ball to the arriving scrum half. On the next phase, Fofana attacks a scrambling blindside defence at pace, and two short passes later the try is scored in the corner.

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The third try is built on interplay between centres Stanley and Regan King, and again Stanley’s decision not to pass after contact is key:

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The pass from Parra – while a little high – is flat and Stanley transfers it quickly to his partner on a strong angle, and King is able to break the line. It’s also worth noting the activity of the runners (blindside wing and flyhalf) behind the centre pairing that prevents King’s defender from committing and creates the gap. Stanley receives the offload and has Rougerie on his shoulder, but crucially opts to take contact – the 13’s footwork to evade the fullback takes him into the French international’s path and there is a risk that the offload would be a forward pass. Julien Bardy is on hand to quickly clear ruck, and again within a couple of phases Clermont have crossed the try line.
From these three examples, we can see evidence for these principles upon which Cotter’s style of play at Clermont was founded. How has this transferred to his new role as head coach of Scotland? First it’s instructive to compare his Clermont team above to that which he inherited in the summer of 2014.
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The 2014 6 Nations was a low point for the national team; a last minute drop goal from Duncan Weir to steal victory at the Stadio Olimpico was all that saved them from a wooden spoon, and a forty-eight point defeat against Wales on the Championship’s final weekend – marked by Stuart Hogg’s early red card –  was undoubtedly the lowest ebb. Scott Johnson was the interim head coach, and ultimately not in a position to install attacking structures given that Cotter was arriving in a matter of months. We can look at Scotland’s first attacking set of the match, after Duncan Weir had kicked a penalty to the corner to set up a line out, for evidence of the issues that Cotter assumed when he took on the role the following June.
The line out is set up, and the throw is to the middle pod – immediately, the positioning of the lifters in the formation of maul allows Charteris to get an early shove and disrupt:
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The maul is driven back and as a result the second phase begins nearly ten metres further back.
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The third phase sees an attempt to hit the blindside wing, Max Evans, on a switch off scrum-half Greig Laidlaw; however, the run directed back towards first ruck, Laidlaw’s gaze and body language makes it clear that Evans is the only option, and there are no players offering another threat to distract the defence.
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Evans is well wrapped up by the tackler, and play is switched via carries by forwards on phases 4 and 5. Laidlaw again switches play towards the near touchline on phase 6 – Evans is at first receiver, seemingly expecting his 9 on a loop but Laidlaw doesn’t run the line. The wing gets wrapped up by two Welsh tacklers and can only offer a speculative offload after being driven back. Stopping play at this point, we can see Alun Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton already lining up Evans – who has his back turned – for powerful double tackle.
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In an ideal world, Evans would take the ball flatter to the defence, with 9 running the loop hard; 13 could then run a hard unders line between Charteris and Warburton, leaving 12 to fade out the back and attack the final defender with 8 – who should be deeper – in support. Unfortunately, the play completely breaks down – there is no commitment to strong running lines, and apparent uncertainty as to what the first option should be. After Evans offloads to Laidlaw as he backpedals, Hogg receives a pass and the scrum-half is the first man who must attempt to win the ruck. The ball is deflected out on the Scottish side and recovered by the opposition, and the opportunity in great attacking position is lost.

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Notable in the attacking set above is the absence of fly-half Duncan Weir from the action; he doesn’t touch the ball in six phases, in stark contrast to the role Brock James and Cotter’s Clermont 10s played in directing runners into wider channels. This appears to be an aspect of Scotland’s play that the coach has adapted for the national side, with the New Zealander often opting for Finn Russell – who offers more of an attacking threat – over Duncan Weir. Greig Laidlaw remains an important player for the side, but less reliance is placed on him as a playmaker from the base of the ruck. This was one aspect of the development Cotter’s Scottish side showed during last year’s World Cup, and a reason to be optimistic that they will comfortably outperform their last two 6 Nations efforts. Again, I’ll take a look at some of the tries that Scotland scored in the tournament and see what aspects of Cotter’s style of rugby we can see.

Their opening try of the tournament against Japan showed immediately some of the benefits of the introduction of Russell as a playmaker, along with sharper running lines from the midfield and support from depth by the outside backs. This line break for Sean Lamont was engineered by the running line of screening forward Grant Gilchrist (4); he continues on past play and takes his defender out of the game. In addition, Russell delays his pass for long enough to commit his man, and Bennett has a 2 vs. 1 against his defender. He slips the pass inside to the trailing wing, and Lamont is supported by Matt Scott and John Hardie (out of shot).

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The initial depth of the flanker and centre in support of Lamont creates options for the pass, and the ball is spread to the 5m channel. A wild offload from Hardie keeps the ball in play, and after a phase Hardie hands on the left touchline and crashes over from Laidlaw’s pass.

Their fourth try of this match, scored by Mark Bennett, showed an improvement in the way that multiple runners offer options to the playmaker.

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Bennett offers on the switch, Scott runs a hard line into the hole (the option Russell takes, resulting in a line break), and Maitland trails and offers a back door option.

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Similar to the Stanley example above, Scott transfers the ball to two hands as he goes to ground and is able to pass from the tackle to Bennett, who beats the cover and races over to score.

These are both positive examples of the team’s improvement, but there were still issues of inaccuracy in a number of cases. This is illustrated well in the image below. After a line out, Sean Maitland is meant to be the first man to the ruck formed by Ryan Wilson’s midfield carry (circled). However, he overruns the breakdown and leaves his back row forward isolated:

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It is positive that the winger is looking for an offload from his powerful ball-carrier, and although it is not punished in this instance hawking opensides will convert this isolated breakdown into a turnover.

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What promises to be one of the most interesting parts of the upcoming 6 Nations is the introduction of former Manawatu Turbos head coach Jason O’Halloran into the Scotland set up to take charge of the backs. He’s another Antipodean coach arriving in the UK with great pedigree: he took New Zealand 10th largest union back to the Premiership in the 2014 season with a series of impressive performances, and in his time at the province has aided the development of back-line talent such as Aaron Smith, Aaron Cruden, Otere Black and Nehe Milner-Skudder. After his appointment, Scottish journalist Jamie Lyall conducted a very interesting interview with him for the BBC; it included this telling quote, which appears in line with the evidence we’ve seen above:

“We need to work on accuracy – offloading is a really important weapon, but inaccurate offloads kill you…Being selective with our offloads is going to be key – that’s probably where Scotland do let the pressure valve off the opposition.”

His track record in team coaching and individual development suggests that his presence will be of great assistance to Cotter in refining the talent which they have available to them into a more composed outfit. Another point in their favour is the coherence between their vision and that of Glasgow’s in the Pro12: Gregor Townsend is one of Europe’s most exciting young coaches, and Glasgow’s domestic triumph last year came playing a similarly attacking brand of rugby – featuring many players who will be important parts of Cotter’s squad moving forward. One of the reasons why Cotter and O’Halloran’s native New Zealand has reached a status of such reverence in the rugby world is because the general principles which underly the style of play of the national team are embedded in those of the provinces and franchises from which players are selected, and it will be reassuring for the coaching team to know that their principles are being integrated at the domestic level.

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Another factor in Cotter’s favour is the process of talent identification and development which the SRU has in place. For Edinburgh in the Pro12 this season, teenagers Blair Kinghorn and Jamie Ritchie have earned consistent minutes from the bench, while at Glasgow Zander Fagerson has made 19 appearances in the front row over the past two seasons. Ritchie represented Scotland U20 at the 2014 Junior World Championship as an 18 year old, and captained the side from the back-row at the 2015 U20 World Championship. Alongside him in Italy were 18 year olds Kinghorn (who has played fullback in senior rugby, but was a fly-half at junior level) and Robbie Nairn of Harlequins. The 6’3″, 101kg wing has already represented Scotland at the 7s World Series in Dubai and Cape Town this year, and has featured prominently for Quins in the Singha 7s tournament and the Aviva A-League. He only turns 19 in February, but is already a physical specimen capable of winning contact against much older than him:

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In the clip above, from the Dubai 7s encounter with France, he arcs outside and  attempts to keep his run infield and comfortably wins the collision with Pierre-Gilles Lakafia (who at 6’1″, 96kg is by no means a diminutive 7s specialist). He couples this size with good pace and decent finishing ability:

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An area of his finishing which he may look to improve on is his use of the fend; he does not use it on the defender in the example above, and in the U20 World Championship match against Australia last summer full back Andrew Kellaway was able to make a covering tackle at the corner flag to prevent a try as Nairn elected not to try to hand him off.

Perhaps the most promising prospect, however, is Adam Hastings, who has been directing traffic from the 10 shirt for Bath United in the Aviva A-League in his first year out of school at Millfield. He was not selected for the final squad for the U20s last season, but with regular A-team rugby under his belt this season appears to be in pole position to make the cut in 2016. He seems to have inherited similar physical stature to that of his father Gavin, and has good pace in addition to his 6’2″ frame:

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His work as a cover defender here – against Gloucester in the Singha 7s in August 2015 – is excellent, as he tracks across and is able to hold on and make the tackle on his inside shoulder.

At Millfield he played in a talented backline alongside England U18 fullback (and fellow Bath academy member) Darren Atkins, and some clips from their convincing victory in the 2014 U18s Schools Champions Trophy Final will provide good evidence of his attacking instincts. From an attacking line out at the 10m line, Hastings receives a high pass from his scrum-half Josh Barton which causes him to drift across the field. However, he is able to straighten off the back foot, beat his man on the inside and find Atkins with a short pass to create a dangerous line break:

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Throughout this match he was able to creates holes in the defence with clever passing and tactical kicking. In the second half he started a move from inside his own 22 with a cross kick to his right wing to exploit a narrow defence, and finished it by feeding his front row forward with a beautiful inside ball to score:

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By straightening the angle he attracts the attention of the inside defender, and Peck goes through the gap to score.

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There are many reasons to believe that Scotland will continue to improve under the tutelage of Vern Cotter and Jason O’Halloran, and some aspects of their play in last year’s World Cup show that the approach had begun to bear fruit. However, this may not even be the most exciting part of Scotland’s future; young talent is gaining exposure to high levels of rugby across the UK at an early stage in their development, and this coupled with Cotter’s coaching credentials gives Scotland supporters several reasons to be cheerful looking ahead to the next World Cup in Japan in 2019.

 

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