There’s a certain symmetry to this weekend’s visit of Fiji to Murrayfield.
Vern Cotter, unceremoniously ousted as Scotland coach to make way for Gregor Townsend five years ago, returns to his former stomping ground.
You can barely make any criticism of Gregor, in conversation or on social media, without someone chiming in that Cotter – now coach of the Fijians – should never have been replaced, or even brought back.
Although Townsend’s record as head coach is clearly superior – they’re the only two in the pro era with a positive record – it’s not a fair measurement.
From whitewash to (nearly) a World Cup semi-final
— Fiji Rugby Union (@fijirugby) November 1, 2022
Cotter (belatedly – his appointment was a year late) took charge of a demoralised squad. Into the bargain they seemed somewhat – and understandably – confused by the idiosyncratic temporary reign of Scott Johnson.
The Scots were whitewashed in Cotter’s first Six Nations. But to his credit, within five months of that the Scots were one poor refereeing decision from beating Australia and reaching a World Cup semi-final.
But for a few oddities – shedding 60-plus points at Twickenham, for instance – Scotland were better than decent for the last 18 months he was in charge.
The compelling narrative is that the departing Cotter turned over an “oven-ready” unit to Townsend.
Moreover players like Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell, Hamish Watson and Jonny Gray were ready to become international class players, if they weren’t already.
Gregor didn’t have to suffer the growing pains Cotter did taking over from Johnson. He benefitted greatly by the cohesion and direction that the New Zealander left him.
The favoured son getting his way
Scotland coach Gregor Townsend is under "mounting pressure" after omitting Finn Russell and starting the autumn Test series with defeat by Australia, says former captain John Barclay.
— BBC Sport Scotland (@BBCSportScot) November 1, 2022
I didn’t support Cotter’s replacement by Townsend at the time. It smacked of the favoured son getting his way again, a recurring element in Scottish rugby during Gregor’s playing and coaching careers.
But I also think it’s really wrong to say that Townsend merely exploited the strong foundation that Cotter left. He’s definitely built on it.
Scotland have been consistently competitive throughout Gregor’s tenure. There’s been almost none of the capitulations that occasionally occurred even under Vern.
Sadly for Gregor’s legacy, there’s one black mark of an outright unacceptably poor performance that is likely to be the defining mark of his term. The 27-3 humiliation by Ireland in Yokohama in the opening game of the 2019 World Cup.
Vern’s career path since he left Murrayfield hasn’t exactly been flushed with success. He got a mega contract to coach Montpellier in France, but was kicked upstairs there after a couple of seasons.
He’s now coaching Fiji, and their results have been better, at least until this year.
What might have happened?
One of the great Rugby World Cup matches 🙌
Japan beat Scotland in front of an electric crowd in Yokohama to become the first ever Asian team to reach the quarter-finals 🇯🇵 pic.twitter.com/EtCoeeDHp2
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) November 26, 2019
Would Scotland have continued their upward path if he’d never been replaced?
Probably. He had a solid and united squad that respected him and his methods. Several players, as good as we’ve had in a couple of generations, were approaching their primes.
It’s certainly highly improbable that the disunity we’ve seen in the Scotland camp over the last two years would have happened under Cotter.
But it’s all so hypothetical, really like the suggestion he should be restored now.
Townsend’s five years in charge – six under his current contract, unless utter calamity befalls him in the next few weeks – has been a long term for an international coach.
It’s unlikely that Vern would have been – or would have wanted to be – still Scotland head coach now, after eight years.
Townsend could probably have still ended up with the job. Perhaps he’d be approaching his first World Cup rather than his second.
Maybe he’d have taken the job at Harlequins it’s rumoured he used as leverage to force Mark Dodson to give him the Scotland job.
Perhaps he would have proved himself there or elsewhere (France maybe?), and succeeded Vern after Japan.
Or maybe Gregor realised five years ago was his sole chance for the job he really coveted, and he did everything he could to take it. Hindsight suggests that was maybe his thinking.
A man of authority like Vern
It’s fun – although essentially meaningless – to hypothesise now. What is true is that Cotter’s quite brief reign as Scotland head coach was roundly positive. Then and now.
And it gives us a pointer. It’s surely likely that Gregor’s term comes to an end after the World Cup next year, at the latest. He could coach elsewhere, or maybe he’ll move upstairs at Murrayfield.
But even if the latter happens, we shouldn’t just accept the succession Gregor seems to have put in place.
It’s not realistic to bring Cotter back now. But we should be looking for another figure of real authority like Vern was.
And we should cast the net as wide as possible to find him.