Contenders for the No 9 shirt, Cusiter and Blair on their friendly rivalry
WHATEVER other positions have given the national coaches sleepless nights, Scotland has always boasted healthy competition for the No 9 shirt and never more so than now.
The two specialist scrum-halves on tour have been rivals for over a decade and friends for, well, a little less than that as they discuss. At 31 Mike Blair is older by a year and ahead on caps with 81 to his credit while Chris Cusiter earned his 60th against Australia. The Aberdeen-born scrumhalf gives his age as 29 but Blair is quick to add the younger man turns 30 on Wednesday while pointing out that he himself has only just turned 31. While they get on better than ever neither man is ready to concede so much as an inch in their enduring battle over the No 9 shirt.
The hugely experienced pair are used to talking to the press about themselves but we asked them to talk about each other.
What are your earliest memories of each other?
Blair: We were talking about this earlier on. I was on the bench for Scotland U16s behind Chris’ older brother Callum. We were playing against Lancashire U16s and Scotland U15s were playing straight afterwards and Chris was playing for the U15s.
Cusiter: I don’t remember that. I think my first memory was probably U18 stuff, Lothian schools against North schools, something like that. I’m a bit younger than Mike!
And what was the first
Cusiter: I think Mike had a bit of a schoolboy reputation although I’d never seen him play. We never played Edinburgh Academy. I just remember this kinda odd looking, little skinny kid who was quite skilful.
Blair: The first thing I remember was his curly hair and he was quite stumpy and made a really good cover tackle. That was quite complimentary wasn’t it?
What has the other guy ever done to get picked ahead of you?
Cusiter: I think we are pretty different players. Mike thinks a lot about rugby and he knows a lot about rugby tactics; the real technical side of the game.
Blair: Chris gets picked because we are such different players. Coaches go through different phases of what they want from their team. Under Matt Willaims Chris started 17 on the trot and when Frank Hadden was in charge I started 80-85 per cent of the games. Andy Robinson has been more even. Basics-wise I think Chris is probably better than me at the individual aspects of scrumhalf play.
Cusiter: Yeah, I had a frustrating time when Frank was there and Mike had a frustrating time when Matt was there and when Robbo came in we were joint captains for a wee while.
What aspect of your rival’s game do you most covet?
Blair: Whoo. Good question. (Long pause while Blair thinks). I think Cus’s physical nature. His ability to break a tackle and to offload in a tackle. When I study Chris’s games it’s not necessarily the clean steps that beats the opposition it’s in the contact that he beats them.
Cusiter: I’d like Mike’s rugby knowledge and tactical ability probably has an edge on mine. So when the game goes his way he can control things, he’s very good at finding space for others.
Can sporting rivals ever be good friends or that only come after retirement?
Cusiter: I think that has changed over the years. I think initially Mike just had his Edinburgh mates and I just had my Borders mates and that was it really. I think with age comes a bit more respect and understanding of where we are in the pecking order and the fact that it can change. We both have our ups and downs. We are both in the older crowd so when we tour we go for coffees together and play cards.
Blair: I think it’s definitely changed in the last few years. When I was 22/23 I’d be thinking ‘why am I not playing’ and it’s changed a bit now. Obviously I’m still desperate to start for Scotland but I have more understanding that the coach is picking the team he wants to win. He’s not picking Cus because he thinks he’s worse than me. I’ve certainly felt more relaxed in the last few years about our friendship.
Cusiter: Because it’s been eight years we’ve been competing with one another we do understand that there are ups and downs of injury, selection and form and you can’t always control that.
What has the rivalry done for your own individual game?
Blair: I feel I play best when I have the 100 per cent backing of the coach. If you know that you are first choice and if you have a slightly off game and that’s all it is... you get confidence from that. If you are clear number one I like that. It is good to have the rivalry but only to an extent. For me personally there is an advantage in having the coaches’ absolute backing and knowing that you are number one. It means you can relax.
Cusiter: I was always quite driven. It was great early on when I was getting the nod and then I found it really frustrating. I think I am a pretty competitive person. I think the rivalry’s been good, we’ve both had some good games for Scotland and hopefully we have a bit to offer yet.
When did your rival really get under your skin?
Blair: I got really p****d off that he kept on charging down my kicks in the Edinburgh/Glasgow game at Christmas. There were definitely two and there might have been three. And when Edinburgh played the Borders in 2005 Cus did this grubber which took the most ridiculous bounce at right angles, I slipped and it fell into his arms for a score.
Cuister: That’s one of my favourite memories! I think the only time Mike got under my skin was when he was getting a good run of games. I think it was against New Zealand when Mike was making a lot of good breaks and I just thought that any scrum-half in the world would have done the same but he was getting all the good headlines for it. So I felt a bit peeved at the time.
Blair: I thought myself at the time that this was not quite right but you do get talked up and everyone jumps on a bandwagon.
Has your rival ever done anything brilliant on a rugby pitch?
Blair: He scored a good try for Boroughmuir at Meggetland. Cus had a one-on-one and he did a good step and scored under the posts. By the way I am coming off worst in this discussion because I can actually remember things!
Cusiter: Mike and Simon Webster used to run a lot of nice moves using the inside ball when the both played for Edinburgh. He and Webbo had a pretty good understanding, I was always quite impressed by that.
Has your rival changed as a person or a player since you first met?
Cusiter: Yeah, I think he’s definitely matured. I don’t think his style of game has changed. For a while I thought that he might play at 10 and I was hoping it would happen so we could both play together. He has that upright running ability from nine and I think the style of Mike’s game probably hasn’t changed a lot.
Blair: I know Cus a lot better now than I did in the early years. I used to think he was quite quiet but I think he was only quiet in that particular environment. I guess we know each other a lot better, hanging out at card school together.
Cusiter: That’s another thing that annoys me! Because he wins at cards he never has to buy the coffees. That’s the only reason we get invited to play cards, to pay for his coffee.
How important is the fly-half in determining which of you gets the nod?
Cusiter: I like a ten who compliments my style of play so someone like Dan Parks was good because I had more of a running game while he had more of a kicking game. I think the consistency that you pick up by playing together is what most nines want.
Blair: I think the fact that I play with Greig at Edinburgh helps. We have an understanding because we can interchange a bit. I definitely think it has an influence on selection.
Cusiter: One last thing. I have a friend from Aberdeen who is an idiot and he bumped into Mike out in Edinburgh one night. He said to Mike, ‘I hear you are really good at table tennis’ and Mike admitted he wasn’t bad, so my pal said, ‘that’s just as well because you’re crap at rugby’. I’d have been so angry if anyone had done that to me. Mike dealt with it better than I would have done.
Blair: I just took the compliment about the table tennis!
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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Temperature: 8 C to 17 C
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