IT IS difficult not to feel a smidgen of sympathy for Hugh Blake, or at least it was before Saturday’s Test team was announced with the young Kiwi flanker the sole debutant in the starting XV to play against the second best team on the planet. It marks another remarkable chapter in a story that you wouldn’t dare submit as fiction.
By Saturday night, Blake, who only appeared on these shores last December, will have started more games for Scotland than he has done for his current club, Glasgow Warriors, and more than he ever managed for the Highlanders (he remains uncapped in Super Rugby) and the same number of starts that he made for Edinburgh where he first fetched up… one.
Vern Cotter clearly sees something in the young flanker that others have missed although the coach may have hit the nail on the head when he referred to Blake as one for the future.
He was unable to elbow his way past his current Scotland colleague, John Hardie, when the pair were in competition at the Highlanders and, with Blair Cowan and John Barclay both ranked ahead of him, it seems unlikely the youngster will survive the World Cup cull when it occurs.
Saturday evening is his big chance to impress because it may be a wait before another opportunity comes around.
“He offers a different form of play,” said Cotter. “He gets to the wide channels quicker and he has a good step and carry.
He is a player of the future but we need to see exactly where’s he atVern Cotter on Hugh Blake
“He’s working hard on his defence. He is a young man coming through and he has a pedigree.
“If they play (Sean) O’Brien and company in their back row we will get a fair idea of where he’s at. He is a player of the future but we need to see exactly where he’s at.
“Obviously, other loose forwards will get opportunities after him.”
Blake is just 22 and he barely looks it. Unfailingly polite, he shakes the journalists by the hand one by one before and after his interview. You just worry that he is a little too nice.
A close encounter with the likes of O’Brien could crush the confidence of a young player with precious little first-class rugby under his belt.
Most newbies at least pretend to have no fear ahead of their debut, but Blake makes no bones about the state of his nerves.
“When my name got read out I didn’t actually hear any of the other team so I was pretty excited,” he admitted under questioning.
“It’s all happened a lot quicker than I expected it to. That (selection) is out of my control.”
Does the fact that he was selected ahead of the likes of Barclay, who starts on the bench, give a boost to his confidence?
“It’s not going to make me any less nervous, that’s for sure. Everyone’s been working pretty hard over the last few weeks. There are five sevens in this squad and I’m just lucky enough to get the first opportunity. We’ve both been running in and out of six and seven and I’m sure he’ll come off the bench and get an opportunity in this first game.
“I have no control over selection, so, in terms of confidence, it doesn’t really change. He’s a great player and he is probably going to play seven at some point, too.”
Of course, Blake has been here before. He was included in the Six Nations squad, a move that was met by shrieks of protest although goodness knows why? Cotter doesn’t make the rules, he just abides by them. Blake was eligible, two grandparents hail from Glasgow, Cotter saw something he couldn’t see elsewhere and picked him, even if you suspect that his fellow countryman was never going to start.
Despite throwing his lot in with the land of his grandfather’s birth, Scotland has been slow to clasp the Kiwi to its bosom. He started one game for Edinburgh, and came off the bench twice, before he was shunted along the M8 to Glasgow who didn’t utilise him at all. At least one Scottish team eventually gave him some much-needed game time.
“I got put on loan to Glasgow at the business end of their season and I wasn’t really expected to be thrown in there and take guys’ positions that have been playing there all year so I got to go and play sevens,” Blake recalls.
“I saw this as a good opportunity to commit to Scottish rugby. It takes away my eligibility to go back to New Zealand and it commits me to Scotland forever.
“So I got to play in the last two tournaments and it was an awesome experience.”
In yhe final tournament at Twickenham, Blake helped Scotland snatch victory over England in front of their home fans, a rare enough event anywhere let alone at HQ. Perhaps he has something about him after all?
When asked yesterday what he would reply to the doubters, several of whom are asking the questions, Blake felt no need to apologise for being here and starting on Saturday.
“If someone asked me what right I had to play for Scotland, then I’d say I had as much right as you,” he replied.
“My gran was pregnant with my dad when she left Scotland, so I have as much blood as I need to have to represent my country and I’m proud of that. I know in my heart that my blood is Scottish so I try and take no notice of it.”