Mike Blair bids to add Kiwi polish to rugby coaching skills

Some ex-players are the perfect fit for a move into coaching, some fancy it but struggle to make the transition, while others recoil from the prospect altogether. Former Scotland scrum-half Mike Blair knew from early on that it would be a probable next step and he is determined to forge as successful a coaching career as he did a playing one, which garnered 85 caps for his country.

Mike Blair, left, and Calum Forrester embark on a coaching experience with the Crusaders in Canterbury, New Zealand next month. Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS/SRU
Mike Blair, left, and Calum Forrester embark on a coaching experience with the Crusaders in Canterbury, New Zealand next month. Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS/SRU

“I’ve always been... the nice word would be studious, the not so nice word would be a geek,” said Blair yesterday after being confirmed as a joint-recipient, along with Calum Forrester of Ayr, of this year’s John Macphail Coaching Scholarship, which will see the pair spend three weeks with the Crusaders in Christchurch next month.

“I love watching rugby and working out what teams are trying to do and how they’re trying to do it,” added Blair.

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“I’ve done elements of coaching throughout my career. I coached at Ponteland [while with Newcastle Falcons], not a high level but it is important to learn how to communicate.”

Blair recently called time on his playing career after suffering problems with concussion but Scotland’s most-capped scrum-half will remain with the Warriors as one of head coach Gregor Townsend’s assistants.

The 35-year-old is looking forward to starting his life as a full-time coach with the trip to New Zealand, which will see him and Forrester working with the Crusaders as well as being exposed to other coaching environments in the local clubs and schools.

The scholarship was established in the memory of former Scotland hooker John Macphail, who died in 2004, and also sees two young players head to New Zealand for a 15-week playing stint. This year’s recipients were Patrick Kelly and Ross McCann.

“Through my playing career I was able to experience rugby in Scotland, England and France but I’ve not spent a lot of time in the southern hemisphere,” explained Blair.

“In terms of improving and developing myself as a coach, it is important to take information from lots of different sources.

“Being able to do that with the Crusaders, who are
consistently one of the 
best teams in the southern hemisphere, is a fantastic opportunity.”

At just 29, Forrester is viewed as one of Scotland’s most promising young coaches. The former Glasgow back-rower and Scotland Sevens player took the reins at Ayr two years ago and recently led them to top spot in the BT Premiership regular season before falling to Heriot’s in the final. “I’d love to be involved in the professional game one day but I’m still very much learning my trade,” said Forrester.

“I’m young and the next few years is just about learning. I’ve been very lucky with the opportunities that I’ve had since making the transition from player to coach at Ayr.

“The first year was a bit difficult from being with my peers and team-mates to doing that. But further down the line it becomes easier and it’s just about learning about myself, my man-management skills, and it’s been a great process.”

The pair depart for New Zealand on 7 June, which means Blair will be around for Glasgow’s push to retain the title.

He explained he wouldn’t be travelling to Connacht as part of the coaching staff at the weekend and wanted to finish the season as one of the lads before changing focus next term. “I want to finish the season as a player. I think relationships change once you move to the dark side,” he joked.

“The stories from the weekend you probably wouldn’t get if you were on the coaching board. I’d like another two or three weeks of hearing that side of things.”

Blair has visited a London specialist to get his concussion checked out and revealed: “It went really well. I had lots of assessments, and it was a pretty draining hour and a half. But I passed all the tests, memory and balance and all these things, apart from having the symptom of the headache.

“As a group of neurologists they see three months of symptoms after concussion as not being irregular. So that was actually very reassuring.”