Chris Cusiter and Mike Blair to go head-to-head for first time in six years

SCOTLAND’S two leading scrum-halves of the past eight years have become such strong fixtures in the Scottish rugby landscape that even Chris Cusiter and Mike Blair were surprised to learn that they would be facing each other in Monday’s Boxing Day 1872 Cup clash for the first time competitively in exactly six years.

The players last went head-to-head in the Boxing Day derby match between Edinburgh and the Borders at Murrayfield in 2005, the hosts emerging 30-25 winners. At the time, much of the hype beforehand was of the two young guns vying for the Scotland No 9 jersey, and yet neither Blair nor Cusiter had particularly memorable games, while Edinburgh substitute Rory Lawson had a greater impact off the bench in the second half.

The paths taken by Blair and Cusiter since then have been far from what either might have envisaged, the latter leaving Scottish rugby for Perpignan in France with the Borders’ disbandment in 2007, while Blair saw off the challenge from Lawson but still could not nail the navy jersey as both players played out the latest in a long line of terrific Scotland scrum-half battles.

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The home-based nines come together now as wiser heads, Cusiter back from France and after a year on the sidelines recovering from injury, and Blair having wrested the Scotland position from Lawson at the World Cup and carried good form into recent games.

Frustratingly for those looking for some gnarled and bitter rivalry, the old sages do not view their own personal battle as a big part of Monday’s Murrayfield clash. But experience tells them that it will have an influence on thinking among the public and Scotland coaches just over a month from the Six Nations Championship.

Cusiter said: “We are pretty familiar with each other, but that [six years] seems like a long time. I am surprised. Actually, I’ve been biding my time. Six. Long. Years!” he said with a laugh.

“When I came back from the World Cup, to be honest, I was pretty angry or frustrated with the way things had gone. I never started a game and got 30 minutes, so I wanted to get back playing and I’m enjoying just playing again.

“I missed these games [against Edinburgh] last year with injury so I missed all the excitement and the atmosphere around them.

“Mike is a friend and we got on well at the World Cup, and I find it more amusing playing against friends because you do try to trip each other up. At scrum-half, you are not running into each other all the time or anything like that, but around the scrums and around the rucks there are little bits and pieces.

“It is not a game of tennis – it is not a direct one-on-one. You’re both trying to do your best for the team and get the ball away as quickly as possible.

“But I know what Mike’s strengths are and his weaknesses and he knows the same about me. He is a smart scrum-half and always has been. He is a good reader of the game and very good at exploiting weaknesses if we leave opportunities. That is the warning for us not to leave him time or space.

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“But, in terms of Scotland, selection goes on the whole season so I don’t think either of us would put everything on these two games. Yes, it is a good opportunity but so much depends on what is going on in front of you.

“I’m not saying it is just another game, because it is a Glasgow-Edinburgh game, which is going to be brilliant. But I just want to play as well as I can and he wants to play as well as he can – it is as simple as that really.”

Blair agreed, insisting that he accepted that the scrum-half who shines will receive the plaudits, but also that sometimes that often has more to do with his pack than anything he does. There is more anticipation around a Scottish game than there has been for some time and both players are clearly excited about the game but, asked if facing Cusiter for the first time since 2005 made the game more appetising, Blair just smiled.

“I am probably meant to say yes, but not really. There are so many things that scrum-half and half-back play are dependent on, such as the performance of the pack, the weather conditions, how you’re trying to play the game on that particular day etc.

“But, obviously, you want to avoid your opposite man having a good game and you’ll do as much as you can to ensure that, and because there is that ‘head-to-head’, things will be read into the fact of one guy having a better game than the other.

“Whether that’s right or fair or not is not for me to judge but that’s how people will look at it, so I’ll be looking to put my best foot forward.”

On Cusiter’s influence, he added: “He’s important to what they do. They have a couple of elder statesmen with Chris and Al Kellock, and John Barclay probably fits into that category as well, and they have a lot of young guys around them, so they will be looking to lead from the front.

“They have a lot of experience in these types of games and with Graeme Morrison as well, to step up and show the younger guys the way forward.

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“There is an extra edge to these games. You try to avoid cliches about these being a Scotland trial and all that rubbish, but there is an extra intensity to games like this.”