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Cotter has spring in his step as he prepares to go extra mile

FORTY-TWO players used in four matches.

Vern Cotter is satisfied with how Scotland performed on their recent summer tour. Picture: SNS Group/ SRU
Vern Cotter is satisfied with how Scotland performed on their recent summer tour. Picture: SNS Group/ SRU

Four countries and three continents visited, with nearly a million air miles accumulated fully by a group that will each have travelled 25,000 miles by the time they get home. Three wins, one thrashing. One optimistic coach.

Those are the bald figures behind the Scotland tour and the amount of travelling and the fact that Vern Cotter, the head coach, was forced by circumstances beyond his control to use almost three XVs-worth of players - adding a further eight new caps to the 14 earned in the previous year - undoubtedly went a long way to explaining the final result, a 55-6 defeat by South Africa.

That anybody suggested a schedule like that was nuts; that Scotland's officials then accepted it was almost unbelievable and it leaves a nearly implausible set of contradictions in place in trying to assess where all this leaves Scottish rugby. The easy, and perhaps correct, approach would be to dismiss the tour as an aberration and move on. At no stage did Cotter get to pick what he might have thought was his strongest team, and by the end he was picking a side aimed more at the 2019 Rugby World Cup than the tournament next year.

For all that, the Scotland coach remained unfailingly upbeat about the whole thing. He regards the tour as a valuable learning experience for both himself and the multitude of players he was obliged to use. "The players will get good feedback from this tour - individual performances and how we performed as a team," he said.

"I got what I wanted, though I would have liked a less hard kick in the butt from the final game. We did try to develop things, we did try to identify and occupy space and we did try to vary our game even though we were behind early in the match against South Africa - catch-up rugby does change the way you play. We tried to put things in place."

For Cotter, the positives were the set piece, both scrum and lineout; that he could lay the foundations of the high-tempo game he wants with a wide group of players; the emergence of Grant Gilchrist as a genuine contender to be captain; the blooding of new caps and the performances those debutants put in, particularly Adam Ashe and Kevin Bryce in the final Test.

The negatives? Cotter cited discipline; Scotland's work at the breakdown and the number of simple errors committed by even the most experienced players kept making under presssure.

"I said after the South Africa game and stick to it: if we take away our mistakes and the things we offered them, some of the easy ball we gave them, we can quickly cut down the difference," he said. "If we improve physically and technically then we cut down their dominance at the breakdown; there are a lot of things we are developing.

"The objective is to play up-tempo rugby and to start developing speed in our game all over the park. You look for athletic, strong players.

"There are things I am happy about. It has been good to be able to talk to players as well and to get them shifting forwards and looking at their rugby. The challenge now is to constantly follow these players and give them feedback for the next time we come together to give them an opportunity to get back into the team. We will work to develop everyone who could be selected.

"I am going to be a pain in the butt, I'm going to be at them the whole time. They will end up turning their phones off to get rid of me. I will be round talking to coaches and players, keeping on their case.

"I am really happy with the attitude and the work ethic the players have and they are good people, essentially, and that is what makes a good team. That is why I am positive and was positive even after the last game. There is scope to shift them and a real desire to perform better as a team.Those are positive things we see as coaching staff."

However, even with a strong side out in the first two Tests in North America, Scotland still struggled and needed a huge slice of luck to beat Canada. Cotter's side triumphed from a reversed penalty just when it looked as though the home side were about to go back in front late in the game.

Against Argentina, the Scots were facing what was in effect a second- string team - expect 13 or 14 changes when they open the Rugby Championship against South Africa next month - and yet Scotland were nine points down with 10 minutes to go. It took commendable determination to win the match from there but you cannot dismiss the first 70 minutes from the reckoning.

Then there were the Springboks. It was just as bad as the 55-6 scoreline suggested, with Scotland looking both underpower and under-skilled against one of the best teams in the world. Jet-lagged and exhausted, they never stood a chance.

"There were some encouraging performances by several players," Cotter added. "I still don't like losing but I was encouraged by the spirit and determination of the players to keep developing and keep trying to put things in place. We will go forward with a plan to improve physically, improve technically and to apply tactics that suit us."

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