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