The announcement of Mike Blair’s retirement from rugby provokes contradictory feelings. The first is relief. He is 35 and has suffered two concussions this season. He is a married man and a father; it would have been foolish to have put his long-term mental health at risk in order to play another season or two of rugby. Retirement is the sensible and responsible decision, and one that his many friends and admirers should welcome.
Nevertheless, it is also sad to know one won’t see him playing again. There are few players of his time who have given me as much pleasure, and in his last half-season for Glasgow he seemed to be playing as well as ever. He might have lost a little of his speed of foot (though I’m not sure of that), but not his speed of thought, and, watching him, it seemed to me that his judgement and game-management remained outstanding. Playing mostly in matches when Glasgow were without their current internationalists he acted as shepherd to his less experienced team-mates.
He played for Scotland 85 times, starting, I would guess, between 50 or 60 of these matches. This was no mean achievement, for competition for the No 9 jersey from Chris Cusiter and Rory Lawson was stiff. Cusiter indeed leap-frogged him into the 2005 Lions. There were other positions for which Scotland coaches found themselves struggling to find players of genuine international class, but not at scrum-half. There were several seasons when Mike was the best scrum-half in the Six Nations. That said, his Lions experience in 2009 was unhappy. Surprisingly omitted from the original touring party, he played in the first match when the Lions were truly terrible, the ragged delivery of ball from the pack being any scrum-half’s nightmare, and subsequently seemed to be “not wanted on the voyage”.
It was his misfortune that, like his friends and colleagues Chris Paterson and Simon Taylor, he played at a time when Scotland XVs always seemed perforce to include two or three players who, whatever their merits, wouldn’t have got into any other Six Nations side except Italy. Consequently more matches were lost than won. There was scarcely ever a dominant scrum, and throughout his career, Blair suffered, as Cusiter and Lawson also did, from slow ball. I once asked Frank Hadden, the most successful Scotland coach of their time, to compare Cusiter and Blair. “Cus,” he said, “is technically the better scrum-half, but Mike makes things happen.” Too often, however, he had to be engaged in damage limitation.
One will remember him for his speed of foot and thought, his readiness to spot the opportunity for a quick tap-penalty, his courage, the excellence of his cover-tackling and security under the high ball and his ability to read the game. Like all scrum-halves he didn’t always do the right thing, but he did it far more consistently than most. All these qualities were still evident in his last matches for Glasgow, as was the unselfishness with which he took punishment rather than pass on bad ball to his fly-half. Quite often he seemed too brave for his own good.
At least since the Seventies when we had Duncan Paterson, then Alan Lawson and Dougie Morgan, Scotland has been fortunate to have a succession of very fine scrum-halves; it is one of the few positions in which we have never been weak. They were followed by Roy Laidlaw and his perennial understudy Gordon Hunter, Gary Armstrong, Andy Nicol, Bryan Redpath, then Blair, Cusiter and Rory Lawson, up to Greig Laidlaw and Henry Pyrgos today. We might all have different ideas about the pecking-order, but few, I think, would leave Mike Blair out of the top three. As with some of the others, one can’t help wishing one had seen him play international rugby behind a dominant pack. English and South African scrum-halves have usually had a much easier time than Scottish ones who have often been condemned to trying to create something from very little.
Still Mike Blair leaves many happy memories, and it’s good to know that he will be continuing in the game as an assistant coach with Glasgow where, among other things, doubtless he will be mentoring the next generation of scrum-halves. I have the impression that Ali Price, who may be the best of those in the queue behind Laidlaw and Pyrgos, has already learned a lot from him; he and others younger still will learn much more.