Chris Cusiter speaks exclusively to Pundit Arena about touring New Zealand, Scotland and the Lions.
When Chris Cusiter is asked what are the proudest moments of his career, he is unequivocal:
“Getting capped for Scotland was my dream growing up, and getting picked for the Lions a year later was unexpected; it was an amazing experience.”
In many ways, 2017 appears to be a watershed moment for both Scotland and Scottish involvement in the Lions. Earning three wins in the Six Nations for the first time, playing some sparkling rugby and defeating the likes of Ireland and Wales in the process, it seemed the team was finally delivering on the promise it had shown in glimpses during Vern Cotter’s time in charge.
Very few people predicted Scotland would be in contention for the runners up spot having spent much of their history since 2000 competing with Italy for the dreaded wooden spoon. So what does Cusiter feel has changed for his country?
“It’s partly down to Glasgow Warriors’ success and culture. It’s really influenced Scotland a lot; a Scottish team winning the Pro 12 it was pretty much unheard of, for a Scottish team to be able to do that, and that winning culture began to translate into the Scotland team. They knew they could beat Irish and Welsh teams regularly. The England game was a setback, and obviously the loss in France, but you can see that belief coming through. The players at Glasgow had been playing at such a high level so that helped the national team.”
The evolution of Glasgow as a real force not just in the Pro 12 but in European competition as well has come under the guidance of coach Gregor Townsend, who will take charge of his country for their summer tour to Australia. Although recognising the achievements of Vern Cotter, Cusiter is happy to see his former coach rewarded with the top job in Scottish rugby.
“I worked with Vern Cotter a little bit and he did an excellent job as Scotland coach, but I’m not disappointed to see him leave as a I am great believer in Gregor Townsend, I know his capabilities having been coached by him at Glasgow and he’s done a fantastic job as Glasgow coach.”I think he will do the same thing for Scotland.
“Vern Cotter did a very good job, but there’s now someone in place who can move them onwards, for Scotland to become more consistent and compete with the big teams. I think this is an opportunity for Townsend to work with the players he has done for a number of years at Glasgow within the national set-up.”
Warren Gatland has confirmed that Townsend turned down an opportunity to work with the Lions this summer, so does Cusiter think the Glasgow man made the right choice?
“I respect Gregor’s decision; he’s the ultimate professional and he recognises his responsibilities and his duties to Scotland in taking that job. I’m sure he’ll get his opportunity for the Lions in the future, but I respect the fact that he turned it down. I think he knew if he missed that Scotland tour it wouldn’t send the right message out there and I’m sure he had that in the back of his mind. I think it was probably the right call, but obviously a very tricky one.”
For Townsend, there will be a number of challenges facing him when he takes charge of the Scotland team, none more so than a lack of depth:
“In terms of the last Six Nations Scotland did struggle in terms of depth, that’s going to have to be addressed. With injuries it’s when Scotland’s personnel issues come to the fore. We don’t have the strength in depth that countries like England and France have and that’s the real issue. As a coach that’s difficult to develop, you’ve got to hope your best players are available for selection. An ideal solution would be to have more pro teams, but obviously that’s not necessarily possible financially, but those will be the kind of challenges that he’ll face.”
But Cusiter feels the transition between Cotter and Townsend will run smoothly:
“The style of game that Vern Cotter and Gregor Townsend like to play is very similar, the way that Clermont played under Cotter, the way the Glasgow players did under Gregor, there are similarities. They like to move the ball and find space, they’re very innovative in their start-up plays and they like to challenge defences. I think there will be a lot of continuity there.”
He also seems a brighter future for the team, building on what they have already achieved:
“I think the consistency has definitely improved, they’ve just got to keep backing up the kind of season they had this year, iIf they can have a successful summer tour and take one or two big scalps in the autumn. The group of players is there that can do it, to play consistently and win. They got three wins in the Six Nations this year, they can certainly match that or better it next year. The atmosphere at Murrayfield this year was so buoyant, and the players will be desperate to experience more of that.”
As for the Lions, Cusiter speaks from a unique position: he was one of only three Scottish players to make the tour to New Zealand twelve years ago, and knows exactly the kind of pressures the players will face this time around:
“On the face of it, 2005 was by far the hardest tour in living memory. Every single provincial team you face is strong, and it’s such a big deal in New Zealand to have the Lions over there and so they put everything into it. The provincial games will be tough and after that you’re playing the All Blacks, the best rugby team in the world. The interest amongst the public and the media scrutiny is incredibly intense. Going over there is such a big challenge, but I think there’s enough talent and good players and I have no doubt that we can win over there, but it doesn’t really get any tougher.”
But it is evidence of Scotland’s progress recently that this time around, there is a significant contingent of players that could and should tour with the Lions – rather than simply being considered as an afterthought. Cusiter, though, takes a pragmatic approach to selection:
“I think there’s a lot of guys who could go, but the problem is the competition is so fierce. Just because of pure numbers a lot of guys aren’t going to go. There are a lot of excellent players to choose from. I’m sure Stuart Hogg is going to go for sure, guys like Tommy Seymour are in that boat: he’s played so well, but there are a lot of excellent wings out there.
“It’s the same with Greig Laidlaw, he’s been a great captain, but if you look at the competition in the scrum half category it’s immense, with Conor Murray, Rhys Webb, Ben Youngs, amongst others. I think the Gray brothers should go and will go, Finn Russell is another player – I’d say he’s an outside bet because there are more experienced players around. Players like Alex Dunbar, Fraser Brown… Gatland may go with players he knows or players from other countries, but there are so many close calls and it’s very, very competitive.”
Regardless of who goes, no one can deny that Scotland have turned a corner this year and a number of Scottish players have earned the right to tour with the Lions this summer. Under Townsend, Scottish rugby might be on the brink of something very special indeed.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena