Blair: Scots side can do what I never did - win in Wales

Mike Blair's Scotland career began a few months after the last victory in Wales 16 years ago, so he has never tasted international success against them on their own patch.

His experience of the Milllennium, now Principality Stadium, has been a mix of heavy defeats and near things, none closer than the epic of 2010 when his decision, with nine seconds left on the clock, to keep a kick-off in play ended up with a match-winning try by Shane Williams and denied Scotland a 24-24 draw.

Asked to put his finger on why the Scots have struggled so badly in the Welsh capital, with only 16 wins out of 60 in total and just six since 1962, Blair’s honest assessment was: “I don’t know. It’s a tough environment with the roof closed. The noise that’s produced in there, any sort of momentum the Welsh are able to get they seem to be able to push home that advantage.

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“Probably over the years things have changed and, barring a couple of games, they’ve been a lot more competitive, but they’ve been able to see them out better than us. But because we play in domestic competition, we know their players well. We’ve beaten them away from home a lot within that league, so there’s nothing that says to me it’s something we can’t do or an issue that we have.

Richie and Jonny Gray in action during Scotlands 27-22 victory over Ireland at Murrayfield last season.

“Genuinely, I think the guys are just looking forward to getting down there. We’ve got a lot of players who thrive in big-match experiences, so I’m looking forward to seeing them playing.”

After hanging up his boots almost two years ago, the 36-year-old former scrum-half has continued in his role as skills coach at Glasgow Warriors and been brought in to the national squad as an assistant by Gregor Townsend.

He is confident the current crop of players can achieve what he never did, score a victory in Cardiff and get this highly-anticipated Six Nations campaign off to the perfect start.

“What I was really impressed with last week was how everyone came together so quickly,” said Blair. “How everyone remembered the objective of how we wanted to play in the autumn and how quickly that came through in training.

Mike Blair in action during Scotlands 30-15 defeat by Wales at the Millennium Stadium in 2008.

“There was a real intensity in that and a lot of the learning for this week was done last week so we are ahead of the game a wee bit.

“At the same time, it’s definitely test week now and sharpening up of our tools ahead of Saturday.

“There is a light at the end of the tunnel and something we are really aiming for now. You can’t stand still in international rugby. If you do then you fall behind.

“There are a few things we will look to change but we are really confident in the ability of the players and their skill-set they have and the desire they have to work hard for the jersey. We are just waiting for it to all come together.”

Richie and Jonny Gray in action during Scotlands 27-22 victory over Ireland at Murrayfield last season.

Blair said it was important for the players to harness the groundswell of optimism created by a fine 2017, which included three Six Nations wins, an away victory in Australia and a superb November campaign, while appreciating that the good times will only continue to flow with renewed and even greater commitment to the cause.

“This group are good at tempering enthusiasm,” said the 2009 Lions tourist. “There are a lot of experienced players who’ve been through the tough times. A lot of the external pressure comes from the journalists and media wanting to get a story.

“We are acutely aware that, if we don’t play to the best of our abilities, then there are plenty of teams waiting to knock us down. Our focus is on what we are doing but obviously, if we get wins, then good things come at the end of that. It’s cliched but Saturday is an important game. What we talk about as players and coaches is that Six Nations is about momentum. If you get off to a good start, then you can ride that wave and, if you don’t start well and don’t get that win, then you are battling going into week two.

“You look at the team you’re up against, Wales, even with the injuries they have will be able to put out a really competitive team.

Mike Blair in action during Scotlands 30-15 defeat by Wales at the Millennium Stadium in 2008.

“I’m presuming a lot of the Scarlets players will be in the team and they’ve been playing some brilliant rugby in Europe this year. They’ll put out a very strong team.”

Blair admits that the influence of the Scarlets surge could result in a different gameplan by the hosts than would usually be expected from a Warren Gatland-coached team.

“It is definitely something you have to think about because there will be a backbone of Scarlets players in there,” said the coach. “Wales have expanded their game, with more passes by forwards and trying to manipulate the defence, which is something Scarlets do very well.

“Scarlets are renowned for playing from deep, trying a lot of offloads, a higher risk game, which isn’t something Warren Gatland would usually buy into.

“But there were times in the Lions series where there were a lot of offloads and playing from deep, so I’m not sure what his approach will be. We have to prepare for both eventualities.”

Of course, Scotland have the perfect source for combating that in the form of their very own captain, the Scarlets back-rower John Barclay.

“Definitely,” said Blair when asked if the skipper was being mined for inside info. “A lot of the players come up against Scarlets a couple of times a year [in the Guinness Pro14, which the Welsh region are reigning champions of] and will know the players anyway, but it would be silly not to get extra information from John.

“There are some things you know already and some things won’t matter. But there might be one or two nuggets in there that might make a difference on Saturday.”