Cotter plotting to do ultimate 'inside job' on France
Vern Cotter is going home. The boy may have been born in New Zealand but the man was forged in the brutal theatre of French rugby.
Seventeen years as a player and coach, 10 of them as a journeyman No8 plying his trade in the unforgiving, character-forming environment of small-town rural France, have given him an unrivalled knowledge of the country and its unique rugby culture.
"Vern really understands the French psyche," says Neil McIlroy, the former Jed-Forest prop who is now the general manager of Clermont, where he worked alongside Cotter.
"That inherent understanding of the French, which was hard-earned at a whole lot of clubs as a player, was one of the major reasons why he was such a success as coach of Clermont, where so many others had failed. And it's one of the reasons why he has a huge headstart trying to work out how France will play in Paris."
Cotter's 10-year playing career spanned five clubs, starting with the small mountain village of Rumilly in the Haute Savoie, Lourdes in the Pyrenees, Saint-Junien to the south of Poitiers, then back to the spiritual home of French rugby - Jean Prat's Lourdes - before ending his career in the remote banjo-playing, wine-quaffing village of Castelenau-Riviere-Basse in the deep south-west.
"Coming from New Zealand I used to think I was a reasonably physical player, but I was a baby," said Cotter.
"France was a total eye-opener for me. Every match would start with a 10-minute fight, and after that was over you'd know who was going to win the game."
The fierce local pride and the concept of l'esprit de clocher (the spirit of the bell-tower), where losing at home was unthinkable, resonated deeply with this passionate introvert.
"It wasn't just a game. I enjoyed the fact that you were playing for your town and your colours. They could be absolute psychopaths on the paddock and gentlemen afterwards."
After a while he even became inured to the violence which has left him with a crooked nose and an almost endless fund of stories of past battles.
These are legion: of the 30-man pitched battle between local rivals Lourdes and Pau; of his mountain men team-mates whose captain screamed at vanquished foes "we may not be able to play rugby but at least we can fight"; of the time he punched "man-and-a-half" Olivier Merle so hard that the gargantuan slugger known as Le Massif Centrale "laughed ... he just laughed at me".
If all of that sounds like an irrelevance when put in the context of tomorrow's game in Paris, that would be to display an ignorance of the unremitting machismo that permeates all levels of French rugby.
Cotter was so successful at Clermont because he understood that the attitudes which prevail in club rugby percolate all the way to the top in France.
"In the same way that when he came to Clermont Vern understood the French psyche, that you can't simply cut and paste what is done in Canterbury or Bay of Plenty and try to impose it on a French club, he also understands how the French will approach the game against Scotland," said McIlroy.
"Vern knows how central the scrum is to the way the French see the game, that it's where it all starts for French players because in France if you lose that, you'll likely lose the game.
"Vern will know that this emphasis on the scrum can be a negative - the French front row will be so hell-bent on dominating there that they won't be thinking about anything else."
Cotter's own analysis of the game backs up McIlroy. The Scotland coach is also helped by the fact that he knows France coach Guy Noves from their time as rivals in France with Clermont and Toulouse respectively.
"They believe this is the game that will set their Six Nations alight," said Cotter.
"We've heard the noises coming out of their camp. It's pretty clear what's coming - they're a big juggernaut that's going to roll over the top of us."
Cotter knows that under Noves France will carry hard through No 8 Louis Picamoles and Loann Goujon and play fast, so touch-kicks need to be kicked into row Z and tacklers have to beware of offloads.
He knows that if Scotland can score early, frustrate France at the breakdown, keep their shape, and get the crowd on the home side's back, they are in with a shout of ending their 18-year losing streak in Paris.
But Cotter more than anyone also knows what France can do if they are allowed to cut loose. © Daily Telegraph, London.
France v Scotland, RTÉ 2, ITV tomorrow, 3.0.
FRANCE - S Spedding; N Nakaitaci, G Fickou, R Lamerat, V Vakatawa; C Lopez, B Serin; C Baille, G Guirado (c), U Atonio; S Vahaamahina, Y Maestri; L Goujon, K Gourdon, L Picamoles. Reps: C Tolofua, R Slimani, X Chiocci, J Le Devedec, D Chouly, M Machenaud, JM Doussain, Y Huget.
SCOTLAND - S Hogg; S Maitland, H Jones, A Dunbar, T Seymour; F Russell, G Laidlaw (c); A Dell, F Brown, Z Fagerson; R Gray, J Gray; J Barclay, H Watson, J Strauss. Reps: R Ford, G Reid, S Berghan, T Swinson, J Hardie, A Price, D Weir, M Bennett.