Heineken Cup: Comeback king Mike Blair relishing Paris match

TWO seasons ago Edinburgh Rugby packed their bags and headed for Paris, with a spring in their step and a song in their hearts, to do European battle against Stade Francais on their own turf.

The match was over almost before it began as the classy Parisians ran riot, with a four-try bonus point in the bag before the half-time whistle.

Edinburgh travel to Paris again, this time to face Racing Metro 92 on Friday evening, needing a win in their penultimate pool match to give them a fighting chance of landing a place in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals for only the second time in history. It won’t be easy. Just to underline the size of the task ahead of them, that loss to Stade in 2009 was their 17th defeat in a run of 18 Heineken matches away from home.

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Since then Edinburgh have pipped London Irish at Reading by the stately margin of one point and bested Racing, who spend like Shirley Bassey, by the exact same margin at Murrayfield. If nothing else Michael Bradley’s men have cornered the market in comebacks after recovering from 19-10 down at the Madejski Stadium to win 20-19 and overcoming a whopping 44-20 deficit in the first leg against Racing to triumph 48-47; a once in a lifetime match that will remain with those that witnessed it as long as they have breath in their bodies.

It’s certainly seared into the brain of Edinburgh scrum-half Mike Blair. Was it the weirdest game that he has ever played?

“Comfortably!” he replies with a laugh as though the memories of that extraordinary evening have yet to fully sink in after Edinburgh grabbed four touchdowns in the final quarter to clinch a famous victory.

“Firstly, coming on at half-time and then just how the game went. We were sitting in the dugout at the start when Edinburgh went 17-3 up and we were just laughing. Then for the next 25 minutes I have never seen a team attack like Racing did. They were phenomenal. They didn’t do anything special, no set moves, just hard running and amazing pace.

“It’s a funny one because, as a rugby fan, you wanted to applaud them. It took a lot [for Edinburgh] to get back into that game because if you give Racing lots of ball that’s what they are capable of doing.”

The little No.9’s introduction to that Racing game on 40 minutes, allied to Greig Laidlaw’s move to stand-off, went a long way towards securing the win thanks to the tempo the duo bring to the game. As Blair admitted, they didn’t achieve much in that third quarter except exhaust the opposition so when the knockout blows arrived in the final 20 it took a rabbit punch rather than a haymaker to fell the French giants.

There is no doubt that that Racing game was a crucial stage in the development of this young Edinburgh squad that has struggled in the RaboDirect Pro12 and badly needed some self-confidence to boost their raw talent. “In both games [London Irish and Racing] you would probably have bet 50 quid on the opposition winning at some point during the match,” says Blair. “So to come back from that was massively significant. You get used to it [winning]. You think there’s always a chance. If you get blown away from that situation, you don’t throw the towel in, but there’s less of a chance you’re going to get back into the game.

“We came back in that Racing game from 24 points down! There’s a belief that no matter how far behind we are there is always going to be a chance [to win].”

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Undoubtedly Edinburgh were helped by the opposition on the night because it is a by-law of Racing rugby that the Parisians play with style and panache. They are, after all, the club that famously rode bicycles to one match in the amateur era, sported berets when playing Bayonne and long striped shorts, as styled by the sans-culottes, in one 1989 match to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. In the 1990 French Cup final against Agen the players drank champagne at half time and wore pink bow ties throughout. Oh yes, and they won.

This is the origin of the cute little “Eden Park” bow tie emblem adorning the clothes of the company founded by Franck Mesnel and Eric Blanc, two former Racing players. This is a club that oozes style and one that would almost find it demeaning to stick the ball up their jerseys and grind out a win over Edinburgh’s relatively lightweight forward pack.

In truth, Racing tried the tactic just once in that Murrayfield match; a lineout catch and drive early in the game. Edinburgh’s pack blitzed it, driving it back and breaking it up before the maul could do any damage. They knew full well that if they allowed the first rolling maul to succeed they would be defending them for the remainder of the match. Instead, Racing threw the ball about and when that happens Edinburgh always have a puncher’s chance.

Only against Cardiff at Murrayfield did Edinburgh’s forwards grab the game and dominate the opposition eight. Blair likens that experience to the home victory over Toulouse in the 2003-4 season which paved the way for qualification to the last eight, but it’s asking a lot of Edinburgh’s big men to do the same in Paris.

The scrum-half is now one of the club’s longest serving players and he cuts a more relaxed figure than in the past. He admits to concerns about how involved he’d be this season, with Greig Laidlaw being the club captain, but also talks about helping the younger players at the club when he has not always seen the bigger picture.

He is one of just three squad members who competed in the club’s only quarter-final appearance along with Chris Paterson and Allan Jacobsen. That squad boasted a host of well-known, tried and tested international players like Todd Blackadder, Scott Murray, Nathan Hines, Ally Hogg, Simon Taylor and Brendan Laney, whereas today’s Edinburgh squad is largely unheralded and none the worse for that. A host of eager young players are desperate to make their name and perhaps they approach the Heineken Cup with fewer hang-ups than the older generation who have tasted so much failure. Despite the lack of superstars, Blair likes the current blend of the Edinburgh squad. He talks at length about how the veterans are having to prove themselves to the younger generation and vice versa and if you find it difficult to comprehend just how young some Edinburgh’s are then you are in good company.

“Harry Leonard’s really made his mark this season but I’d never heard of him before”, says Blair, “and I had no idea he was 19 until I’d played two games with him.”

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Edinburgh have a golden opportunity to make a name for themselves and while it is surely asking too much for a repeat of that classic Murrayfield encounter, at least Racing will come to play rugby. Whether the aristocrats of French rugby are also prepared to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty is the key.

“It depends how they are going to take the game, doesn’t it?” Blair asks rhetorically. “They can put a full-strength team out that aren’t bothered about it. You can have a second-string team that are trying to prove themselves to the coaches. You never really know how it’s going to play.”