Richard Bath looks at the rise and rise of Vern Cot­ter and won­ders whether coaches are now big­ger rock stars than the play­ers.


IT RE­ALLY WAS A PITY when for­mer Bay of Plenty and Cler­mont Fer­rand coach Vern Cot­ter was emp­tied by Scot­land.

Sure his suc­ces­sor Gre­gor Townsend had done a fan­tas­tic job at Glas­gow, but in three years in European rugby’s frozen north Stern Vern had worked mir­a­cles with the for­merly mis­fir­ing Scots, tak­ing them to within a whisker of a World Cup semi­fi­nal, win­ning a record num­ber of Six Na­tions games last year and tak­ing them to fifth in the world rank­ings.

He is the only coach of the mod­ern era to leave Scot­land hav­ing won more games than he lost.

It’s lit­tle won­der Cot­ter was not just fed up but to­tally out­raged at his treat­ment. Much to the con­ster­na­tion of the fol­low­ers of Cler­mont Fer­rand, he had left a cushy num­ber play­ing the Mes­siah at one of France’s lead­ing clubs to tie his for­tunes to a na­tion which had be­come res­o­lutely un­com­pet­i­tive and was com­ing to be seen as a grave­yard for coaching rep­u­ta­tions.

Cot­ter knew what he was get­ting him­self into, but said that at Cler­mont the pain and hu­mil­i­a­tion en­dured by his Scot­tish team man­ager Neil McIl­roy had per­suaded him to take on British rugby’s un­der­dogs.

At Mur­ray­field, Scot­tish rugby boss Mark Dobson lauded him, say­ing that “you can count the world-class coaches in in­ter­na­tional rugby on one hand – and we have one of them”.

No won­der Cot­ter thought he was in with the bricks. After three sur­pris­ingly suc­cess­ful years at the helm in Scot­land, and with Cot­ter’s young fam­ily set­tled in the coun­try­side out­side of Ed­in­burgh, the Kiwi was look­ing for­ward to lead­ing Scot­land into the next World Cup.

When it hap­pened it hit the big man like a sledge­ham­mer, largely be­cause it was so un­ex­pected. Binned. Sacked. Con­tract not re­newed. Call it what you want, Cot­ter was com­pletely blind­sided and, after keep­ing his coun­sel de­spite an emo­tional farewell at Mur­ray­field after thrash­ing Italy on the fi­nal day of the Six Na­tions, the tac­i­turn farmer went back to his North Is­land farm to lick his wounds.

His plan was to stay in New Zealand and ei­ther take up a Su­per Rugby coaching post he’d been ap­proached about or even go back to run the fam­ily farm and do a ton of hunt­ing.

In­stead, Mo­hed Al­trad came call­ing, and when one of Europe’s rich­est men talks most sen­si­ble men lis­ten. Born in Raqqa, the head­quar­ters of ISIS, to a Syr­ian mother and Be­douin fa­ther, he moved to Mont­pel­lier – the south­ern port city which is the fastest grow­ing city in France thanks to its bur­geon­ing tech sec­tor – to go to uni­ver­sity and built a multi-bil­lion-Euro for­tune from his con­crete em­pire, writ­ing three high­ly­ac­claimed nov­els. In 2011 he was ap­proached to save the town’s rugby club, which was then tee­ter­ing on the verge of bank­ruptcy.

He’d never been to a rugby match but agreed, now at­tends ev­ery game and has be­come a fa­natic who says he’ll stop at noth­ing to see for­merly lowly Mont­pel­lier win the Top 14.

So far, like the other bil­lion­aires who own Top 14 clubs, he has burnt through moun­tains of moolah in his at­tempt to win the Top 14, sack­ing coaches who don’t de­liver at the rate of more than one a sea­son.

The lat­est to fail was bom­bas­tic for­mer Spring­boks World Cup-win­ning coach Jake White, who never re­alised that his fel­low South African play­ers rarely pros­per in France.

For Cot­ter, com­ing to Mont­pel­lier was like step­ping back in time to his start at Cler­mont in 2006. Back then Cler­mont were also-rans with a taste for sack­ing coaches rather than the play­ers stuck in a com­fort zone.

But Cot­ter had played in the hard school of French rugby as a jour­ney­man No 8 and knew ev­ery bit of the French men­tal­ity in­side out – the ten­dency to­wards psy­cho­pathic vi­o­lence which had shocked a player who ar­rived in

France in 1990 think­ing of him­self as “some­thing of a hard­man”; the fit­ful work ethic, which ap­palled him just as much; the ten­dency to dis­pense with coaches with­out a sec­ond thought.

Cot­ter knows the down­side at Mont­pel­lier, and knows what will hap­pen if he fails to repli­cate his suc­cess at Cler­mont, where he took the club to its first ever Top 14 ti­tle.

Yet he laid out his terms to Al­trad and the owner ac­cepted them in a heart­beat. The first was com­plete con­trol: when Cot­ter took over at Cler­mont he cleared out more than 20 play­ers who didn’t share his same hard-nosed work ethic, some of them highly-paid big names, and his plan was to do the same at Mont­pel­lier.

The sec­ond was cash. Not only does he have such a huge war-chest that he was able to pay ¤1m a sea­son to bring in Aaron Cru­den, Cot­ter was also re­warded hand­somely with a ¤3m deal for three years, which at al­most ¤1m a year plus bonuses makes him com­fort­ably the best-paid coach in world rugby.

The amounts of money in French Top 14 rugby are stag­ger­ing, and Cot­ter knows these fig­ures in­side out – ap­pren­tices get ¤5,000 a month, a squad player gets ¤15-25,000, Test play­ers get ¤35-50,000 and top im­ports will get around ¤80,000.

But Cot­ter’s ap­peal for some­one like Al­trad isn’t so much be­ing able to out­bid the next man, but in get­ting play­ers to buy into what he’s try­ing to do.

Cru­den, for in­stance, was of­fered £1m by English club Bris­tol and turned it down, and of­fered ¤1m by Toulon but pre­ferred to hitch his wagon to the Mont­pel­lier project be­cause he be­lieved in Cot­ter.

Other play­ers with Cot­ter’s mix of work ethic and hard­ness have joined him at Mont­pel­lier, most no­tably French No 8 Louis Pi­camoles, ar­guably the most ef­fec­tive ball-car­rier in world rugby, scrumhalf Ruan Pien­aar and teak-tough young flanker Ya­couba Ca­mara, whose sign­ing from Toulouse was a huge coup.

There is a bus-full of South Africans left over from White’s ten­ure – in­clud­ing some good ones like hooker Bis­marck du Plessis, prop Jan­nie du Plessis and cen­tre Fran­cois Steyn – and there are some ob­vi­ous French stars such as skip­per Ful­gence Ou­draego.

But Cot­ter and his new coaching team [made up of Scot­tish for­ward coaches Richie Gray and Nathan Hines, plus English backs coaches Alex King and Ian Vass], have largely worked with the squad which was well beaten at home by Rac­ing in last year’s quar­ter­fi­nal.

So far, work­ing on the skills, shape and at­ti­tude of Mont­pel­lier’s play­ers seems to be yield­ing quan­tum leaps in ef­fec­tive­ness.

De­spite be­ing am­bushed at BordeauxBe­gles, where they lost 47-17, Mont­pel­lier are fly­ing, av­er­ag­ing over 40 points in their five wins from their first six matches.

At the time of writ­ing they top the Top 14, hav­ing scored eight tries as they thrashed Brive 57-10 in their most re­cent match.

One of a bunch of Kiwi coaches do­ing well in European club rugby [think Dave Ren­nie at Glas­gow, Wayne Pi­vac at Scar­lets, and Todd Black­ad­der at Bath], Stern Vern, as he is af­fec­tion­ately known in Scot­land, is not an un­known quan­tity in France.

But those play­ers com­ing across him for the first time are find­ing it a chal­leng­ing yet re­ward­ing ex­pe­ri­ence to work with the man with those fa­mous les yeux de glace [‘eyes of ice’] and a dead­pan de­liv­ery which sees Cot­ter use words so spar­ingly you sus­pect he thinks he’ll be charged for each one ex­pended.

But then they are only learn­ing what so many have found be­fore, in­clud­ing the Lions se­lec­tors who were so im­pressed by his vi­sion for the tour that they se­ri­ously con­sid­ered ap­point­ing him ahead of War­ren Gat­land.

As fel­low Kiwi Joe Sch­midt, widely con­sid­ered the best coach in Ire­land’s his­tory, says: “I learned so many things from Vern, just about be­ing de­ci­sive, just about try­ing to grow the key lead­ers. I found that he had a real abil­ity to crys­tallise mes­sages and de­liver them.

“That rugby in­tel­lect was some­thing else. It’s prob­a­bly hard to spec­ify and quan­tify be­cause a lot of it is al­most by os­mo­sis. You pick things up and you prob­a­bly don’t specif­i­cally say, ‘Oh, I learned that to­day’. I ab­sorbed a lot from VC.”

An­other hugely in­flu­en­tial fig­ure in the European game who has seen Cot­ter up close is Jim Telfer. “Vern did a re­mark­able job with Scot­land,” says the Scot­land and Lions le­gend. “He’s got a clear mes­sage. The play­ers know ex­actly what they’re sup­posed to be do­ing in­di­vid­u­ally and col­lec­tively.

“The New Zealan­ders talk about pro­duc­ing good rugby play­ers but also about pro­duc­ing good men. That’s what he’s do­ing. He’s a jour­ney back to the old type of coach, a hard man who un­der­stands that play­ers will run through brick walls for you if you treat them prop­erly and if they’re the right type. When I heard he was leav­ing I was dis­ap­pointed.”

Whether Scot­land’s loss turns out to be Mont­pel­lier’s gain is yet to be seen, but if the Kiwi’s past track record is any guide, I’d get your cash on Mont­pel­lier as quickly as you can.

Cot­ter left Scot­land as one of the only coaches of re­cent times hav­ing won more games than he lost. | | OC­TO­BER/NOVEM­BER 2017 REAL DEAL

Aaron Cru­den turned down big­ger of­fers to join Cot­ter at Mont­pel­lier. PRIZE GET

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