Scots eager to end Cotter era on winning high

Simon TURNBULL
In three years Vern Cotter has guided Scotland from 10th to fifth in the world rankings

Vern Cotter’s battered and bruised Scotland side will hope to give the Kiwi coach a winning send-off when they host pointless Italy at Murrayfield on Saturday.

The opening game on the final day of the Six Nations season is Cotter’s last before the former Clermont coach makes way for Scot Gregor Townsend and returns to the French Top 14 with Montpellier.

In his three-year stint the 55-year-old New Zealander guided Scotland from 10th to fifth in the world rankings, came within a whisker of a World Cup semi-final and is guaranteed to depart as the first Scotland coach in the professional era to achieve a 50 percent win ratio.

With 18 victories from 35 matches, Cotter’s tally stands at 51.4 percent.

Despite the shuddering setback of last Saturday’s 61-21 defeat against England -– Scotland’s heaviest points concession to their rivals -- Cotter could also finish his tenure with the Scots’ highest Six Nations finish.

His team would take second place, behind England, if they beat Italy with a try bonus point, if Wales beat France without a bonus point and if Ireland lose to England.

"There'll be a bit of sadness involved with it being the last game but first and foremost it's about getting the performance," said Cotter.

"Winning's the most important thing. If someone had said beforehand that we'd have two wins with a game to go we’d probably have taken it.

"The players are really focused on an opportunity to finish well in this Six Nations."

- 'Must stop Parisse' -

Cotter’s wounded team will need to recover from the psychological and physical damage of their Twickenham thrashing -- the selection of head-knock victims Stuart Hogg, Ryan Wilson and Tommy Seymour is subject to passing progressive return-to-play protocols.

They will also have to overcome an Italian side, led by the inspirational Sergio Parisse, who will be scenting a chance to end their miserable season on the high of another memorable Murrayfield success.

Italy’s only two away wins in the Six Nations have been achieved at the Edinburgh ground and Parisse, the Stade Francais number eight who has 125 caps, played a pivotal part in both the 37-17 victory in 2007 and the 22-19 triumph in 2015, which remains the Azzurri’s last victory in the competition.

The 33-year-old, born in Argentina, also scored a cheeky drop goal in a 26-6 defeat at Murrayfield in 2009, emulating New Zealand’s Zinzan Brooke and England’s Neil Back as one of the select few international backrow forwards to successfully perform the party piece.

"Everything revolves around Parisse in the Italian team, so if we can shut him down then it will help," said Cornell Du Preez, the South African-born flanker who made his debut off the bench against England.

Under the guidance of new coach Conor O'Shea, Italy came into the championship with high hopes, following their historic 20-18 victory against South Africa in Florence in November.

However, they have suffered a succession of dramatic second-half slumps (scoring a combined tally of just 12 points and conceding a whopping 120) and have failed to finish within 20 points of an opposition team.

"People will say it's physical but a lot of it's mental,” said O'Shea.

"When things go against us we can’t afford to compound our errors.”