• With leadership duties shared, Scotland captain Mike Blair says his role is less onerous Picture: Ian Georgeson
The scrum-half last captained Scotland through 2008-9, having been a popular choice for former head coach Frank Hadden, but after touring with the British and Irish Lions to South Africa he returned to find himself behind Chris Cusiter as both No9 and captain in the eyes of new coach Andy Robinson. That was the start of a notable dip in fortunes for the world-class performer, who had only a year earlier competed with Dan Carter, Sergio Parisse, Shane Williams and Ryan Jones for the title of IRB World Player of the Year.
Blair acknowledged yesterday that after a fine start as skipper in 2008, where he collected the 'man-of-the-match' accolade in helping Scotland to a Calcutta Cup victory in his second game at the helm, he did find it tough. Scotland found it tough too, and there was little doubt Blair's form suffered in tandem, exacerbated by struggles with injury last season.
He does not feel that the extra responsibility was the reason, but said that, having deliberated over Robinson's offer, he did now feel that he was returning to the role in a different environment, one with more leaders and experience to share responsibility.
"I've been happy with the way I've been playing for Edinburgh so when Andy asked me I was obviously delighted to accept," he said. "But I had a good think about it. With any big decision you have to take your time to mull it over.
"I was always going to do it, but I still wanted to think about it rather than just jump straight into something like that straight away. It's a massive honour leading your country, and I wanted to have a little bit of time for it to sink in with me and think about how I do it. But obviously I was delighted to tell Andy that I'd accept.
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"I don't see captaincy affecting the way I play the game. We're looking at building leadership throughout the group of players that we've got around the squad so we have a group of six guys at the moment, but outwith that we have guys that can bring something to the squad.
"So I feel my role is trying to get the best out of the other leaders, not speaking all the time, so that people are sick of my voice, but speaking when I think it's appropriate, with input from guys like John Barclay, Graeme Morrison, Dan Parks and Ross Ford in other parts of the game, so that I can still concentrate on my game but have that overall kind of feeling of control."
Blair added: "I think that is a wee bit different to last time.It's hard to explain, but it felt like all the eyes were on you as captain (in 2008-9], and I think we've been able to develop over the last couple of years. With experience comes more confidence in speaking. John Barclay's up to 20 caps; Graeme Morrison has started the last two or three years' worth of internationals. It wasn't a burden before, just a different style of captaincy. I don't feel all eyes are on me at the moment. There are plenty guys around the squad now who have the ability to captain the team therefore have the ability to help with the leadership."
Hadden spoke of his being in charge of a young squad that would mature at some stage and I have written in these columns before that Robinson is reaping the benefit of that maturing process, underlined yesterday by Blair. The scrum-half was also philosophical about his having to wait until now to win a start under Robinson, pointing out that it was only ten games - Cusiter had to wait 15 to oust Blair under Matt Williams - and that he had suffered with injury, form and good rivals during that period.
He also reiterated how the perception that he was back to his attacking best this season also owed something to a change in approach by Edinburgh, from an attacking style that revolved around stand-off to one that now has the scrum-half more at its centre. Where the Blair humour showed itself, and highlighted the now 29-year-old's own maturity, was when asked if he was fazed by the fact that Scotland had not beaten New Zealand in 105 years and 27 Test matches.
"If I'd been playing for 105 years and through 27 games I think it might play on your mind," he replied, with a wry smile. "But, no, this is a completely new squad, even to the one that played in 2008 against them. Obviously, the All Blacks do have this aura but we as a squad definitely have the belief that if we can match them skill-wise, energy-wise, and with the enthusiasm and decision-making, the crowd will play a massive part and get behind us, and that is how we can envisage putting ourselves in a position where we can win a Test match against New Zealand. Every international we go into we go in to win the game. Obviously, some games are harder to win than others, but that just means we've got to be more accurate with what we are doing to put us in the position to win the game."
Blair continued: "But the past is past. We've watched it on the television, seen Scotland-New Zealand games, but this is a unique team on a unique day. Obviously, if we were to win the game we'd be doing something that many a legend has not done. At the 'Scottish Rugby Hall of Fame' dinner last week, of all those fantastic names mentioned no-one had beaten New Zealand (in a Scotland jersey], so obviously there is that history behind it, but I don't think it's a motivating factor.I think there are enough motivating factors before we look at that."
What he does look at, however, is that burgeoning strength that comes from experience within the Scotland set-up. Robinson has worked particularly hard to spread the load across his players, appointing leaders such as Parks, Morrison, Barclay, Ford, Jim Hamilton and Blair to take responsibility for specific areas of the game. He is not the first Scotland coach to try such an approach, but he has a depth of quality now that underpins the confidence emanating from his players.
"That experience definitely brings more strength," Blair concluded. "The fact that guys like Barclay, Morrison, Sean Lamont etc, have been consistently playing international rugby means that this is a stronger squad.
"We also have young guys training with the squad coming up through the ranks like Ruaridh Jackson who it's going to be completely new to, but I think that experience will bring an extra bit of edge we didn't have in 2008."