SETTLED with his young family in the French countryside, Mike Blair has been rediscovering his passion for rugby and returned to Scotland this week eager to play a part in another new experience.
Blair has faced New Zealand three times and each time come off the field feeling frustrated, believing that his side could have given more if only they had believed in themselves. But the All Blacks can make anyone feel like that, sucking teams into a battle but remaining out of reach in every aspect.
At the age of 31, Blair has finally taken the leap that he has always spoken of. He wanted to try French rugby but attempts to persuade him to stay at Edinburgh over the past decade previously succeeded.
He has now joined French division two side Brive and admits that he wonders what it might have been like had he gone earlier.
But, with baby Lucy born two weeks ago, joining Rory who is yet to turn three but is already teaching his father how to count to 20 in French, Blair and wife Viv are enjoying French life.
“It’s living up to the reasons that I did it,” the scrum-half acknowledges. “It’s such a change to what I was used to at Edinburgh, both in terms of lifestyle and rugby. We’re living in a small village that is relatively remote, even though it’s only ten minutes from the town centre. We’ve got cows and pigs all around us. It’s been fantastic and we’ve settled in really well.
“I do think back now. I had the opportunity to go to France four or five years ago and I wonder how things would have turned out if I had done it that way round. There’s a massive benefit in being in Scotland and being overseen by the SRU in the latter stages of your career. There’s no doubt you get looked after very well, with the quality of the medical team and in terms of how you train.
“But you have to experience it [French rugby]. It’s such an opportunity to freshen yourself up, to try something completely different and it’s not necessarily just rugby, rugby, rugby. I’m learning French and a new town, and it’s very refreshing to be able to do that.”
Blair has enjoyed the extra responsibility that goes with being a scrum-half in the French game. His role is almost that of a skipper and he believes he will be a better player for the experience of a different league. The concern for Scotland supporters is how the drop into the French second tier will affect Blair’s play, especially as he admits that Brive indulge in the French penchant for only really taking their home games seriously.
Typically candidly, he says: “There was obviously a bit of chat about me and Rory Lawson playing in the second division but I think I’m lucky in the position I play because a lot of what you do as a scrum-half is the same whether you’re playing for Scotland, the Lions or Edinburgh Accies. Your main game is your basics, kicking, distribution and organisation. We had fitness testing yesterday and I’m as fit as I’ve ever been. I feel I’m in good shape.”
Blair did not mention it specifically but, on Monday, he and Henry Pyrgos, the Glasgow scrum-half, ran Ross Rennie close for the title of beep test champion. The test is a gruelling continuous running examination that sorts the men from the boys. So Blair is fit and, moreover, has vital experience of facing the All Blacks at Murrayfield.
So, what has he learned? “One of the key things you look at is the start of the game. When we played in 2010 I think they scored three tries in the first 15 minutes or something and we were 21-0 down. In 2008, I think we got a penalty first, but then they scored two relatively quick tries and we were 14-3 down after about 10 minutes. It was pretty similar in 2005 as well.
“After 15 minutes you have to be drawing or at least in touch. Once you get to that stage you start building and, as the game goes on, the opposition become more ‘human’. You start thinking ‘hold on here, we’re in this’. That’s what happened against Australia in the summer. Because you’re in a game at 20, 40, 60 minutes, the belief starts growing in you that you can do something. That first 15 minutes will be massively key to what happens in the game. We’re playing the best two teams in the world. That’s a big challenge for us in terms of our development.
“We stepped it up in the summer but we’re not getting carried away with things. The Australia win showed incredible attitude and strength of character, while beating Fiji in Samoa in the heat was great for us.
“But they don’t allow us to think we’ve cracked this because, for most of the guys in the team, the two games coming up will be the hardest two games we will play in our careers. But there’s also a real sense of anticipation because everyone is desperate to find out how good we are and where are we in the global pecking order at the moment. Can we take on these guys and push them all the way?”
But can Blair see a path to victory? “You need to have the belief that you can. I’m wary of what I say in these circumstances because the headline then says we can or we are going to beat the All Blacks. Everyone is very aware of how good New Zealand are. They are comfortably the best team in the world and we have to have a belief that we can be in the game. But we are under no illusions about how hard it will be.”
Sure to be a crucial figure in just over a week’s time, Blair’s desire for new experiences may just bring some much-needed inspiration.