SCOTLAND’S most experienced performer this weekend, Mike Blair, was in ebullient mood yesterday as he brushed aside talk of the pressure building around the Scotland squad after three successive RBS Six Nations defeats, and instead spoke of a growing confidence.
The scrum-half, who will win his 79th cap in Dublin this evening, may feel he has a new lease of life after being handed the coveted Scotland No 9 jersey for only the fourth time in the last three seasons.
A month shy of his 31st birthday, Blair agreed that there was pressure on the squad to uncover a victory after five defeats on the trot, but it was less his own ability to dispossess Chris Cusiter of the starting berth and more the emergence of a new breed of talent that he feels has invigorated himself and others in the squad. Asked if he felt under pressure this weekend, or whether the squad felt it weighing heavy on head coach Andy Robinson, he said: “Definitely, but it doesn’t come more in this game than others.
“I don’t think the pressure increases from game to game. When you play for Scotland the pressure is there all the time, on your family, friends and everything; there’s always going to be pressure in just about every game.
“Others might say differently but I think there’s pressure whatever the circumstances and you don’t not feel pressure, but you’ve got to use that as a positive.
“Do we owe Andy? Yes, we play for Andy but we’re playing for ourselves and we won’t be putting more effort in to ease any pressure on him, if you know what I mean. There are hundreds of reasons why we’d be desperate to win this game but we’d be like that if we were three [wins] from three as well.
“If someone asks the question is the coach under pressure you’re going to answer it but it doesn’t mean you feel you have to ramp it up. I know as a squad we’re happy with the way Andy gets us ready and has us in the best possible position to win games.
“I guess the frustrating thing,” he continued, “is that going into the championships the last two to three years we’ve said that Scotland have a good chance this year, that we just need a good start, and we’ve not had that start.
“If you do have a good start it makes things easier, and there’s more confidence there. But this year I notice a slight change in the make-up of the squad. With the two to three guys coming in and out there’s been a big age gap; there’s a huge gap between Mossy [Chris Paterson] and Stuart Hogg, Nathan Hines and Richie [Gray] even though he came in earlier.
“And what I like is there is more competition for places and most importantly we’ve got guys now with a bit of ‘X-Factor’ like Stuart Hogg.”
It is intriguing the effect new faces have on a team and it is too easy to throw the ‘X-Factor’ description about, certainly in Scotland, where the lack of outstanding talent relative to bigger nations leaves us often eulogising someone out of the ordinary. Hogg is a fine example of a player who has grown up in a strong rugby environment, providing opportunities to learn rugby allied to a terrific work ethic and enthusiasm to hone his craft with hours upon hours of practise. That is what has brought him to this point at just 19.
The family link discovered to George Best stirred great interest, added to now that he is in the island of the late great footballer and has divided a proud family in the north, but Best was a similar example of incredible dedication to his game.
But the skills Hogg brings have opened the eyes of many players like Blair who have toiled for years in a Scotland jersey without the quantity of quality players to turn potential into success. They have tried many different ways to be more competitive, more consistent, and sometimes achieved it, but never for long. With players such as Hogg, Gray, David Denton and others coming through, however, there is a new sense of opportunity, a new cutting edge, now providing Blair and his team-mates with fresh sustenance and hope through this lean patch.
“These guys have got something,” he said. “Look at the Six Nations so far … Ireland-Wales; a little bit of magic from George North; Rhys Priestland’s off-load. Apart from that the teams were level.
“The three games we’ve played for 70-80 minutes we’ve been level; it’s just that two to three minutes when they’ve got the ‘X-Factor’ that’s made the difference. We’ve got guys like Dave Denton who are in the first two, three, four games of international rugby and as they get more games they will be key.
“We were asked in a survey a couple of weeks ago about who inspires you in the squad, a coach or fellow player, and for me Stuart Hogg was one of the guys I named. He’s young, carefree; he’s a lovely guy to be around and confident in his ability.
“My brother Alex went to the Scotland ‘A’ game [35-0 defeat of England Saxons] and he was saying Stuart was at the back with Simon Danielli and it was Stuart who was bossing, saying ‘do this, do that’, and to have a guy like that with natural ability and the confidence to talk and organise inspires me.”
Blair was asked whether it reminded him of himself as a precocious talent when he made his Test debut a decade ago. He acknowledged some similarities and spoke of a discussion with his club and country team-mate Nick De Luca about where confidence becomes cockiness or arrogance.
“When I’m playing at my best I feel confident in guys around me and you’re almost carefree. You see that with these guys coming through, they’ve got that looseness about them and the mindset to try things and you need that.
“Look round at all squads and they have guys like that, guys with a bit of flair and who have a bit extra, Dave Denton’s like that, Stuart’s like that a confident guy. Got to have a good effect on the squad. Wee Duncy [Weir] too.”
Whether that can have a decisive effect this early in their careers is hard to call. Can it turn this evening’s game in Scotland’s favour? It may be too early to expect that from the youngsters, but what Blair’s words suggested was that it was at least helping to instil greater confidence in the rest of the squad.
Blair’s half-back partner Greig Laidlaw may not be a youngster, at 26, but he has also added a new dimension to Scotland’s play. The doughty Borderer knows the Irish will throw big men down his channel and test his defensive skills in a way few others will experience, as a small man among relative giants, but Blair is confident that he can continue to switch with Laidlaw between the scrum-half and stand-off roles to crucially ask more questions of the home defence than Ireland manage to ask of them.
“I feel comfortable playing with Greig,” he added. “It’s something that I enjoy doing and when we can produce quick ball it gives us a real edge.
“I love the interchange. I often wonder if ten years ago I could have gone down the road Greig’s taken, because having a shot at ten is something I’d absolutely loved to have done.
“But, now, it’s really an enjoyable way to play and it keeps you fresh, working on different skill sets. One of the things you don’t see is the mental side, guys just knowing what it’s like to be a nine so if there’s a situation where the scrum is up on one side and it’s hard to get a pass away Greig will see it and adjust to make it easier, little things like that.”
As to whether it can provide Scotland with an advantage against a more prosaic, but high-quality pairing in Eoin Reddan and Jonny Sexton, Blair just smiled, a smile that spoke of experience.
“You could see it both ways,” he said, before adding that the only way to tell which was more effective was at the end of the match in the Aviva Stadium tonight.
Blair has been here many times before, having played Ireland eight times and won just once, the World Cup warm-up Test of 2007, but there appears to be a new skip in the step of the scrum-half that augurs well for Scotland’s battle to end the drought.