WATCHING a young Mike Blair on a dank afternoon at Netherdale, I said, “that boy’s going to be as good as Rob Howley”, who was then perhaps the best scrum-half in the northern hemisphere.
Well, one often prophesies a starry future for a young player, and that future never arrives. But this time I was right. Mike did become that good, and it was his misfortune, along with other talented players of his generation – Chris Paterson, Simon Taylor, Jason White and Marcus Di Rollo – that he never played in a consistently successful Scotland team. There were several reasons for that – not least the fact that England and Wales were better sides than they had been in the Eighties, and Ireland much better than in the Nineties. Still, it was also the case that we weren’t producing as many top-class players as we did when we won two Grand Slams.
Half the players in our 1984 and 1990 sides were British Lions, past, present or future, and when we were champions in 1999, Alan Tait, Gregor Townsend, Gary Armstrong, Tom Smith and Scott Murray were already Lions, while Gordon Bulloch was a future one. That side also included the Leslie brothers, John and Martin, from New Zealand. We have had no such concentration of talent since, and our record, and our best players, have suffered accordingly.
We have nearly always been strong at scrum-half, usually with strength in depth, but Mike Blair was one of the best, a brilliant attacking player, even though opportunities for a breaking scrum-half are fewer than they used to be, a rock in defence under the high ball, and a magnificent cover tackler. He read the game very well and was a great organiser of his forwards; perhaps only Dimitri Yachvili among his contemporaries in the Six Nations did these two things better. I only wish that one had seen him play behind a dominant Scottish pack. Never mind: it’s been a pleasure watching him. Thanks for the memories, Mike.
Our interim coach, Scott Johnson, has said he will be looking to the future, or, at least, that if it’s a choice between a senior player and one with his best years before him, he will opt for the latter. This is probably sensible. Coaches sometimes hesitate to field a young player on the grounds that he isn’t ready, but the best way to get him ready may often be to throw him in at the deep end. If he’s good enough, he’s old enough. That said, talk of building for the next World Cup is premature. There will three Six Nations tournaments and three summer tours before it is played. In any case the best way to build for the future is to develop the habit of winning, and you have more chance of doing that if your eyes are on the next match, not gazing at the horizon.
When it comes to selecting the team for the Calcutta Cup, the emphasis must be on defence. If the first tackle is missed the opposition are over the gain-line, you are on the back foot, and in trouble. England are a good side when on the front foot themselves, and if you let them get into the ascendancy, they will score tries. So they have to be stopped hard and at once. This is one reason why Rob Harley and David Denton should be in the back-row – both will tackle all day – and why Ruaridh Jackson should be at fly-half; he is the best tackling No 10 available. As for scoring tries, our best chance is on the counter-attack from broken play. It would be nice of course to see some sparkling play, but victory by any means is more important – especially in the first match of the championship. England were dreadful on the opening day at Murrayfield last year, but came away with a win. They were dreadful in their next match in Rome, but won that one too, and have improved steadily ever since. There’s a lesson for us there.
There are of course two Heineken weekends before Johnson selects his team, and it would be optimistic to think that we won’t add to the injury list that has deprived us of Ross Rennie among others. The latest is Nick De Luca, whose facial injury has already ruled him out of the Twickenham game, and may perhaps keep out of the entire Six Nations.
He has many critics who will say, “no great loss” if he is missing. I hope some of them read David Ferguson’s very interesting interview with Brian O’Driscoll last week in which the Ireland captain praised De Luca and said he is “one of the trickiest centres” he has been matched against. O’Driscoll had many sensible things to say about the Scotland team, and the similarities between our game, and our position, and Ireland’s. The whole interview is worth reading, and, if you missed it in the paper, you might be interested to search it out online. It will even make you feel better about the game here.