Scotland’s most capped scrum-half, Mike Blair, is looking for the national sevens squad to gain a boost to its collective confidence when the latest round of the HSBC Sevens World Series takes place at Scotstoun in Glasgow this weekend.
Speaking as an ambassador for tournament sponsors HSBC, Blair feels this weekend will be a pointer to the chances of Scotland in the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, where the event will be played in front of tens of thousands of fans at Ibrox Stadium.
He is not sure, however, that home advantage will necessarily be a good thing, and is looking for good early results this weekend against fellow Pool D members Australia, USA and Spain to get the crowd going.
Blair said: “I have been following Scotland in the sevens series over the past two years and I think the only team they have never beaten, or presented a real challenge to, is New Zealand.
“They’ve beaten Fiji and won against, or run very close, all the other teams. To me that means we can beat them and, unlike the XVs where you can lose to five penalties in bad weather, if you win at sevens it is not done by chance.
“The Scottish support needs something to shout about before they actually shout so, if Scotland give them something to shout about early on, that will provide a big lift. But, on the flipside, if things don’t go well, it could be a quiet weekend in Glasgow.”
Blair is confident that Glasgow will lay on a party atmosphere this weekend, and there will be plenty entertainment off and on the pitch.
“It is a faster-moving game,” said Blair, “and I think the way that XVs is going, with the slowing down of the game and all the kicking, the sevens gives a freedom from that.”
Scotland invented the game of sevens and, were he still with us, it would bring a tear to old Ned Haig’s eyes that in “his” game we have gone backwards in recent years.
Blair thinks that is partly due to physicality, but also a mindset which is not quite sure about the way forward for sevens in this country.
He said: “It is difficult for us in Scotland because sevens is based so much around power and speed and, genetically, we don’t have so many of those kind of guys.
“Our guys coming in 18, 19 and 20 are massively different from Samoans, Fijians and New Zealanders at that age, as they are big guys already.
“The question in Scotland is what are we using sevens for? We tend to use sevens as a development tool, so the question is how do you create a competitive team while still developing players?”
Which begs the question: Should Scotland parachute players from the Test XV into the sevens squad for the Commonwealth Games? Blair is not sure.
“It’s difficult to say,” he mused. “I played in three or four tournaments in 2001 and I believe that is where I first caught the eye of the XV set-up, and I played in the 2002 Commonwealth Games [Scotland won the Bowl] after being capped for Scotland in the 15-a-side version in the summer. As a rule you would have to say that it is difficult to mix and match but, if you have the right players doing it, then it can work. Current guys like Lee Jones have mixed and matched throughout the season and he has looked great when he’s played. Nick De Luca has been in and out of the squad but he’s a fit, powerful player, as is Richie Vernon.”
Blair is looking forward to Scotland’s blend of youth and experience and to seeing the likes of current top points scorer Colin Gregor on home turf.
“Colin’s been brilliant in the series for seven or eight years,” added Blair. “Andrew Turnbull is the same, and I have been really impressed with Scott Riddell. Every time I have seen Scotland playing I have noted him as a good player.
“With this tournament, Scotland probably has that blend of young guys coming through like Alex Glashan and Chris Dean alongside a core of experienced players like Gregor, Turnbull, Riddell, Vernon and Jones. There is a balance about the squad.”
Meanwhile, the man who played 85 times for his country is enjoying life with the Newcastle Falcons who, realistically, need just one point from their final two matches against Wasps and Exeter to stay in the Aviva Premiership, where they lie 11th.
“It’s a tough league to play in,” said Blair, “and because we came up last year it was always going to be a tough season. We are currently nine points up on Worcester and they have still to play Saracens away and Gloucester at home so, without worrying about what is happening to Worcester, if we get one point we should be fine.”
Blair intends to see out his contract with Newcastle which is up at the end of next season when he will be 34. He would not say whether he will quit then, but dropped a big hint by saying that he was “feeling guilty” that his son was now in his fourth different nursery.
During his career, Blair enjoyed a huge rivalry with Chris Cusiter for the Scotland No. 9 jersey, and he mused on how that relationship has developed: “When you are young, you are at your most competitive and we were colleagues as opposed to the mates we have become.
“Put it this way, when I got married six years ago, Chris wasn’t invited, but I am going to his wedding next month – that’s a good indication of how our relationship has developed.”