The scourge of the modern game has claimed its highest profile Scottish victim as the country’s most capped scrum-half Mike Blair has been forced to retire after suffering two concussions in the space of three months and failing to recover fully from the injury.
The scrum-half has acknowledged about seven or eight concussions throughout a long career that first started with Edinburgh Rugby back in 2002 and he has brought forward his retirement, if only by a couple of months, on medical advice.
“Yes there was medical advice in it [the decision],” he conceded. “I spoke with James Robson [SRU head of medicine] who was one of my first ports of call.
“He was the Scotland sevens doctor when I first played in 2000/2001. I know James very well and I know he is very up on head stuff and concussion. I have seen neurologists a couple of times and I am going down to see another neurologist in Surrey on Friday.
“I still have been having headaches but [I am] definitely improving. I ran out of time and I’m not in a situation now, fitness wise, to come back and play. I am not symptom free at the moment.”
Blair received one blow to the head against the Scarlets in a European match last December, courtesy of former Glasgow winger DTH van der Merwe, and another against the Dragons in February of this year.
He insists that he was symptom free a few weeks ago but since then the headaches have returned and Blair called time on his playing days about ten days ago to concentrate on a coaching career with Glasgow.
“I am very comfortable with the decision now because I am still experiencing some concussion symptoms,” said the little scrummy.
“Had it been two weeks ago when I had no symptoms at all and it was a case of right, I could maybe get back for the end of the season, maybe two or three games, that would have made things a lot more difficult.
“You are left with a decision, do I... not risk things with the concussion but what is the risk/reward of being involved in these last two or three games?
“In terms of how I feel now I am very comfortable having made the decision because I don’t feel that I’d be able to get back fit and ready.
“I saw the neurologist about five or six weeks ago and he said, ‘see how things go for the next four to six weeks and then review things after that’. I still have the symptoms but I am very confident that they will go away.”
Despite turning out for Glasgow this season Blair made his reputation in a long career with Edinburgh whom he helped to the European play-offs in 2004 and 2012.
He recovered from a forgettable international debut, a loss to Canada in Vancouver, to earn 85 Scotland caps and it would have been more had he not come up against two first-class rivals in Chris Cusiter and Rory Lawson. Blair also captained his country on 14 occasions and toured with the British and Irish Lions to South Africa in 2009 as a late replacement.
In addition to beating Australia in Australia in June, 2012 and leading Scotland to victory in the Calcutta Cup in 2008, the high water mark of Blair’s illustrious career probably came in the same year when he was nominated as the IRB Player of the Year alongside such figures as Dan Carter, Sergio Parisse and Ryan Jones before eventually losing out to Shane Williams. Blair was the first, and so far the only Scot to have been put forward for World Rugby’s most prestigious individual award.
Now the scrum-half is free to concentrate on a coaching career that has already been chugging along quietly in the background. Blair has been mentoring some of the Glasgow nines already and he identified several areas in particular that Gregor Townsend wants him to concentrate upon next season.
“I’ll be an assistant coach,” he confirmed, “I’m going to have three or four different roles mainly aligned with the attack side of things; a skills element, a mentoring element with the nines and with the players transitioning from the academy or guys coming to the club in their first year.”
When asked about his highlights of a long career Blair mentioned playing alongside brother David at Edinburgh and, of course, that 2012 quarter-final victory over Toulouse at Murrayfield in front of 38,000 supporters before conceding that he was more of a glass half empty character.
“The bad bits are the ones that kind of stick in your head unfortunately and it takes nice people, family people to say you’ve done quite well,” he added.
“You always look at the opportunities missed or potential situations where things could have gone better but we’ve all got regrets.”
One of which must be that he is not starting out on his professional career with the current Glasgow and Scotland squads, both of which promise greater success than Blair’s era ever managed.