FOR a man supposedly at the heart of a raging storm, Hugh Blake looked very calm at his first media conference as a Scotland squad member.
Perhaps a little abashed at being the centre of attention on his first day’s training as part of the national set-up, he seemed otherwise to be taking to the experience like an old hand.
That should come as no surprise. Blake’s selection, before he has even played a game for Edinburgh, has been criticised for what some see as its indecent haste. But, as far as the 22-year-old is concerned, there is nothing either indecent or hasty in his elevation.
He has been eligible to represent Scotland for every one of those 22 years, thanks to his paternal grandparents, Hugh and Maureen Blake, both of whom were born here. He had been in discussions about a move from his native New Zealand for some time before he arrived here late last year. And, crucially, he believes he is now ready to play international rugby.
The openside flanker did not expect the Scotland selectors to share that belief quite so soon, and was therefore surprised when team manager Gavin Scott called to tell him he was in Vern Cotter’s squad for the RBS Six Nations. But, given the opportunity, Blake is determined to make the most of it.
“I’m honoured and proud to be part of the squad,” Blake said. “I was stoked to get the call, and I’m hoping to train well over the next few weeks and potentially play for Scotland.
“Coming over to Scotland at such a young age from New Zealand I always wanted to play for Scotland. That was the overall plan. It has come a little quicker than expected, even for me, but I’m really, really happy to be part of it.
“Both my grandparents are from Glasgow. They emigrated to New Zealand. There’s a lot of Scottishness in the family, especially at family occasions like Christmas… I always knew I had the opportunity to qualify to play for Scotland through my grandparents, so it was always in the back of my mind.”
Born in Tauranga on the North Island, Blake moved south to Otago a few years ago and got to know John Leslie and Brendan Laney, two other New Zealanders who became Scotland internationals, the latter in similar circumstances to Blake. The vital contact when it came to agreeing the big move north, however, was with the man often called the original Kilted Kiwi, Sean Lineen, who is now Scottish Rugby’s head of player acquisition.
“John Leslie and Brendan Laney talked about the great times they had with Scotland” Blake said. “I heard about the grief Brendan got, but he didn’t tell me about it himself. They didn’t influence my decision, but I knew them.
“I spoke to Sean Lineen a few years ago when I was still in contract with Otago when I first got the opportunity to come over. It was a long contract with Otago, so morally I felt I should stay on and see it out even though I could have come over. As soon as that contract was over I’ve come over. I played for the New Zealand under-20s at the World Cup and that’s when it became real.
“I knew I was off-contract with Otago and didn’t re-sign with any ITM Cup side because I knew I had the Scotland qualification. The first contract I was given was a trial period and I just took it. I was backing myself to prove to the coaches and the SRU I had what it took to play pro rugby over here.”
Blake had a rough welcome to Scottish rugby, being knocked out in his first match for Edinburgh under-20s, but he has since played at club level for Melrose and been pleased by the support from his team-mates. “Melrose is a great club. Everybody has been welcoming and I’m starting to get used to the different style of rugby over here,” he said. “They were really happy for me in my first week and proud that I was part of it.”
When Cotter announced his squad last week he insisted that Blake had different qualities from the other No 7s available to him, implying his compatriot would make Scotland more dynamic and less predictable. That praise might suggest the coach is ready to name Blake in his squad to play France on Saturday week, but the player himself is taking nothing for granted.
“I try not to read too much into it,” he said of his call-up into a group from which eight players will be omitted from the squad for the match at the Stade de France. “I’ve only been picked in the squad, I haven’t been picked in the team, so I want to prove to the coaches first I have what it takes and then prove it to the fans and the Scottish people.
“All I can do is perform well in training, and if I get selected then great. I pride myself on my fitness and being quick around the park. The way Scotland are trying to play suits that.”
Polite and modest when answering questions, Blake became blunt and assertive only once. Reassuringly, that was when it mattered most, when he was invited to say how he would reply should Cotter ask him if he was ready for international rugby.
“Yes,” he said. We will find out next Thursday, when the team to play France is named, whether Cotter agrees.
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