DCSIMG

David Ferguson: Sharp as a blade, but faced with constant battles to earn the right to be part of Scots’ cutting edge

Mike Blair in action against Barbarians in June 2002

Mike Blair in action against Barbarians in June 2002

  • by DAVID FERGUSON
 

IT MAY be more than ten years ago, but it is not difficult to remember when Mike Blair first stepped on to the Test stage as a precocious 21-year-old, the slight Edinburgh Academy past-pupil being groomed as Bryan Redpath’s heir apparent by Ian McGeechan and then Edinburgh coach Frank Hadden.

He had come into the game as the new scrum-half leaping on to an enviable conveyor belt of talent through previous generations, preceded by Alan Lawson, Dougie Morgan, Roy Laidlaw, Gary Armstrong, Redpath and Andy Nicol, and he brought a new zest to the national picture. And, just as that latter trio fought for the No 9 jersey over nearly a decade, so a new three-way battle was to ensue around Blair in the new millennium.

A product of The Edinburgh Academy, Edinburgh Accies and Boroughmuir, Michael Robert Leighton Blair came through the Scotland age-grade ranks as Armstrong was retiring and made his debut just months after representing Scotland under-21s on the 2002 summer tour to Canada and the USA. He scored a try on his first appearance, an achievement lost in the disappointment of a 26-23 loss to the Canucks, but enjoyed a better second Test in a 65-23 win in San Francisco.

He learned at the feet of Redpath, whilst also being educated by ever-competitive opponent Gary Armstrong, still making his mark with the Border Reivers. But, when Redpath did retire at the end of the 2003 World Cup, new national coach Matt Williams sprung a surprise by promoting Armstrong’s Borders deputy, Chris Cusiter, for the first Test of 2004 and leaving Blair on the bench.

That was the start of the engrossing battle between the pair that would have continued in the forthcoming Six Nations had Blair not announced his retirement. Williams used Blair more widely off the bench, and then Hadden took over in 2005 and flipped the roles, using Cusiter more often for second-half impact, but insisting that he saw little between the players and was endeavouring to give them the same game-time.

Blair enjoyed his best period for Scotland under Hadden, starting 31 internationals, before Andy Robinson took over in 2010, and again turned the tables, opting for Cusiter, but echoing Hadden in admitting that it was a close call between the pair, and Lawson.

They were different players and different characters, but each coach looked to exploit their strengths. Blair’s pace, fitness and running skills, and a clear ability to read the game, were core assets, and his pace made him a threat, but also saved countless tries against Scotland. Like all attacking talents, Blair was soon shackled at the top level after cutting open defences with his early darts – he is nicknamed ‘Blade’ – and he took time to respond and overcome the frustration of hunting new ways to be as dangerous.

He worked well with Chris Paterson – Blair is second only to Paterson in caps for a Scotland back – and one wonders what might their close friendship have yielded on the pitch had they been teamed up as half-back partners. But he was joined by a stand-off he knew better, his brother David, at Edinburgh and then the youngest sibling Alex. Blair the elder outlasted both, David retiring from the game early and Alex being released due to injury problems.

While Williams’ preference for Cusiter earned him a shot at the British and Irish Lions in 2005, in New Zealand, Blair’s form under Hadden after a serious shoulder injury earned him a raft of Scottish awards in 2008, a first Scottish nomination for IRB Player of the Year – the trophy went to Wales wing Shane Williams – and the Lions call for 2009.

A Scotland captain 14 times, with seven Test tries, the scrum-half had chances to play elsewhere, notably with Ulster who considered him before signing Ruan Pienaar, and some questioned why he did not leave the Scottish capital earlier, but his response was that he loved playing for his home city and had watched Paterson endure a forgettable move to Gloucester.

He surprised fans by taking the plunge last summer and signing for Brive in the French second division when back in fine form, steering Edinburgh to the Heineken Cup semi-finals, which has provoked comments from supporters that it is only now that Blair has gone that they realise how influential he was in the team.

He is enjoying life in Brive with a young family and at 31 is confident that he still has at least two more years left in the game. Just no longer in the navy of Scotland.

BLAIR FACTFILE

1981 - Born 20 April in Edinburgh.

2001 - Top scorer in the IRB Sevens in London after representing Scotland at schools, under-19 and under-21 levels.

2002 - Represents Scotland Sevens at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester. Signs professional terms for Edinburgh Gunners following spells with Edinburgh Academicals and Boroughmuir.

After seven Scotland A caps, makes his full international debut in a try-scoring appearance against Canada in June.

2003 - Makes World Cup debut against USA.

2006 - Named Edinburgh player of the season.

2007 - Misses the RBS Six Nations with a shoulder injury but returns to play in four of Scotland’s five World Cup games.

2008 - Captains Scotland for the first time after Jason White goes off against Ireland at Croke Park. Leads Scotland out against England and is named man of the match in the 15-9 Calcutta Cup triumph. Makes his 50th Scotland appearance against Argentina before being named Edinburgh team captain.

Nominated on the five-strong shortlist for the IRB player of the year award after winning his club and country prizes.

2009 - Leads Scotland out in all five Six Nations matches. Wins selection for the Lions tour of South Africa as a replacement for injured Irishman Tomas O’Leary.

2010 - Shares captaincy duties with fellow scrum-half Chris Cusiter for the Six Nations.

2011 - Wins his 75th cap against England in the World Cup.

2012 - Leaves Edinburgh after ten years to sign for Brive.

2013 - Calls time on Scotland career after winning a total of 85 caps.

 

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