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Bay of Plenty coach Vern Cotter has announced he's leaving New Zealand rugby to take up a lucrative contract with French club Clermont.
Cotter, currently in Christchurch as assistant coach with the Crusaders, is leaving in June, giving the Bay of Plenty Rugby Union just five months to find a new NPC coach.
The 44-year-old has coached the Steamers for the last four seasons and was the union's development coach for two years before that.
He was named New Zealand coach of the year in 2004 after Bay of Plenty won the Ranfurly Shield for the first time and reached the semifinals of the NPC, and is in his second season with the highly successful Crusaders franchise.
But the opportunity to move his young family back to France - where he played and coached for most of the 1990s, was too good to turn down.
"It was a very tough decision," Cotter said today. "But all Super 14 coaching roles are tied up until the end of next season, so it just seemed to fit.
"The opportunity to learn really intrigued me, because it's a club that's been frustrated with its results. And the French competition interests me going into the last year before a World Cup, seeing how European rugby is gearing up. It's perfect timing to broaden my experience after two years with the Crusaders and six years with Bay rugby."
BOPRU chief executive Paul Abbot was disappointed with Cotter's loss, and admitted the hunt for a new coach will now begin in earnest.
It's understood the union could have held him to the end of his contract, but recognised his sterling service to the Steamers and didn't want to sabotage his progress as a coach.
"We were pretty resigned to losing Vern at the end of the season anyway so it's just accelerated it by about six months," Abbot said.
"For the last two years, Vern's been dodging offers from overseas clubs and provinces within New Zealand. He's been noticed and his attractiveness on the market has increased dramatically."
Abbot pointed to the restructuring the union has done in the last six months in elite rugby. Cotter has helped create systems that ironically minimise the impact of his departure.
"(Assistant coach) Andre Bell has been working with the summer training squad and liaising with the Super 14 guys so from a continuity point of view at this stage there's no issue," Abbot said.
"At this stage of the year, the involvement from Vern with the players is minimal and a lot of the planning for the season has already been done anyway. All our training and set-up has already been sorted out so basically it's just a case of unrolling from here.
"It takes a bit of heat off looking for a new coach because we've those structures in place. It means we can afford to go through a proper process in terms of selection, and get the best person."
Cotter said that made his decision easier - knowing that he wasn't leaving the team in the lurch.
"I'm pleased with Bay of Plenty rugby," Cotter said. "It's grown a lot in the last three years, and I'm leaving knowing things are in good hands. The union has strong foundations and we've created a professional environment. The players have got good leadership now and they're almost independent in their approach to preparation."
Cotter's NZRU contract runs out in June, and it's understood Crusaders bosses are fuming that the Te Puke farmer has slipped through their fingers.
He was seen as a possible replacement to Robbie Deans when the Canterbury man finally ends his stint with the franchise.
Cotter has agreed a two-year contract with Clermont, which is in the French top-14 division, with an option for a third year.
Current Clermont coaches Philippe Agostini and Jean-Pierre Laparra will stay in charge for the rest of this season and are expected to remain at the club during Cotter's tenure.
- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES