HE MAY have been tagged the ‘flair’ man, but as the skilful scrum-half walks off the international stage, Mike Blair believes that the route to success for Scotland lies with less attacking rugby rather than more.
Blair’s ‘flair’ label was the result of vying for most of the past decade with very different scrum-halves in Chris Cusiter and Rory Lawson. In truth, all three have their own elements of flair and each could be workhorses and tireless defenders, but the progression of the trio allowed us, and various coaches, to categorise them as cards to play against different opposition or on different days.
Blair was the ‘heads-up’ kind of player, one who Gregor Townsend and others reckoned could have been moved to stand-off early on in his career to allow Scotland to develop Blair and Cusiter together. No coach was brave enough to take the plunge, or foolish enough to experiment with a player sparking new excitement in the No 9 jersey.
And yet, after announcing his retirement from international rugby and reflecting on his 11-year Scotland career, Blair could pick out only one season in which he enjoyed anything that could remotely pass for consistent success, a three-win Six Nations Championship in 2006.
So, if we do indeed learn more from failure than success, what does Blair now feel makes for a good Scottish team? A scrum-half who loved nothing more than attacking open space and moving defences across the pitch, under Ian McGeechan and in Hadden’s early days, Blair feels that success invariably lies with a prosaic gameplan.
“It is a very interesting balance that you have to find with Scotland,” he said. “When you look back at the great victories we’ve spoken about, what are the common denominators? A strong, aggressive and dominant defence, a good kicking game and good goal-kicking. I know that sounds negative, but it’s the reality. We have developed a stronger attacking game in recent years, which is great, but the more you attack the more you also leave yourselves open to mistakes and the more those mistakes can be exploited at international level and really hurt you.
“I love running the ball and moving it around the park, and I have enjoyed some of the attacking philosophies we’ve tried, but it’s a really interesting balance between always demanding improvement from players and challenging them, as you should do, and having a hard-nosed, pragmatic approach to what gets the win.
“It’s going to be a balance now for Scott [Johnson] to find and it will be interesting to see how he does that, what team he moulds and what players he selects. He has to keep developing the attacking skills of the players, but we also have to look back to what has brought Scottish teams success in the past.”
In terms of personal highlights, Blair looks back on 2008 as the year of greatest memories – captaining Scotland to victory over England and being nominated for the IRB World Player of the Year.
Of the first, he recalled: “The weather was not too bad as we warmed up and then when we came into the tunnel to line up before going out onto the field the rain was teeming down, almost horizontal. I don’t enjoy playing in the rain but I knew that the England players would hate it much more, with 15 mad Scotsmen coming at them. I can still remember going up to lift the Calcutta Cup at the end and the crowd there in the stands, wet and cold, singing. It feels incredible even now sitting here remembering it.
“The other big personal highlight was at the end of that year, being down in London at the IRB awards. It is a great honour to be the only Scottish player to have been nominated for that, and sitting watching the highlights of what I had done, alongside Dan Carter, Shane Williams, Ryan Jones and Sergio Parisse, was quite special. To be held in the same regard as those players was massive for me and something of which I am still immensely proud.”
But, from a team perspective, his favourite campaign was Scotland’s most successful Six Nations, the first under Frank Hadden in 2006. “I really enjoyed that championship. I started four out of the five games, we won against France first-up, just failed to beat Wales, despite playing very good rugby, beat England and Italy, and went close against Ireland. We played with a lot of confidence and belief and the whole 2006 campaign was really enjoyable.”
That success seemed to stem more from the players’ delight at throwing off the shackles placed around them by Matt Williams and playing with a greater freedom espoused by Hadden, than a limited approach, I offer.
“That’s true,” said Blair. “Essentially, it is belief and confidence that gives you the best chance of success, but it’s about how you find that.
“You look at Wales: Grand Slam champions, World Cup semi-finalists and then you look at their last seven games, where they’ve struggled. They are mostly the same players that enjoyed the successes, but have maybe lost some confidence.
“I know players here and have been fortunate to go on a Lions tour and know the quality that exists elsewhere, and there is no doubt that we have the quality of player to compete internationally but, to do it, we need the vast majority of the team playing close to their best. That happened in 2006.
“The other thing that we did in 2006, which we haven’t repeated, was we won the first game. Momentum in the Six Nations is huge. Win the opening match and you get a big confidence boost that carries you into the second game a week later, and a belief that you can build on.”
It has been a tough decade for any Scottish internationalist and Blair may have endured more agony that is reasonable in Test rugby, the defeat to Italy in Rome last year among the more stinging low points. But as well as the 2006 and 2008 Calcutta Cup wins, the Edinburgh Academy product has enjoyed some great days in the sunshine. He reached the Heineken Cup quarter-finals with Edinburgh in 2004 and 2012 and experienced the sweet taste of victory over England, twice, France, Ireland, Italy, Australia and Argentina, among others.
The clearest indication of Blair’s ability, however, is arguably his cap total. He has watched nearly 90 players make their Scotland debuts since he did in 2003, the most recent being stand-off Tom Heathcote, and cites Scott Murray, Simon Taylor, Nathan Hines, Chris Paterson and Andrew Henderson as among his best teammates. He has outlasted them and younger debutants since.
He has also had to sit and watch some historic wins, against South Africa and the Wallabies, and there is little doubt that had Lawson or Cusiter not been around at the same time, Blair would have joined Paterson on 100-plus caps. To have made it to 85 while first challenging captain Bryan Redpath for the scrum-half berth, then Cusiter and Lawson, points to a strength and desire to improve that has probably been too easily glossed over.
It also gives Blair an insight to Scottish rugby few others possess; a knowledge of the good and the bad, and the struggles to remain competitive in the professional era. So, how does Scott Johnson’s new squad emerge from the malaise?
“The frustrating thing is that, for the past four or five years, we’ve talked about Scotland being a team with great potential, but in the first game things have come unstuck,” Blair said. “I still see us a team of potential and we’re in a transitional period now with guys who are earmarked for the 2015 World cup squad needing to get experience this year, but also needing top performances and victories.
“But I’m quite excited for the guys looking ahead to the Six Nations. This will be the first year for a while that no-one will give us a chance and, for Scotland, that’s a good thing. Teams won’t expect much from us and Scottish people like being the underdog.”
Blair is not sure yet if he will go to the opening day’s Calcutta Cup, or watch from afar the first Test match in 11 years for which he is fit but unavailable. He is looking forward to spending every fifth week the French league has off and the novel experience of five weeks’ holiday in the summer, with wife Viv, his young son Rory and daughter Lucy.
“It will probably be tough watching the Six Nations, but I think I knew in my heart of hearts after the autumn Test that that would be that. I still feel capable of playing international rugby, which made the decision hard, but that also means that I have been able to come to this decision on my terms and I am really pleased about that. Everyone has to move on at some point.”