WHEN Mike Blair scored a try on his final Falcons appearance at Kingston Park last Saturday in a 37-21 win over Harlequins, he was following in a fine tradition for Newcastle No 9s.
In his St James’ Park bow nine years ago, Alan Shearer, the legendary former Newcastle United and England football striker turned Match of the Day pundit and, as it turns out, close neighbour of Blair, found the net against Wigan.
“He lives just round the corner but we’ve not met,” explains Blair. “I’ve seen the car buzzing about – registration AS9, so he’s not exactly incognito.”
For the past two years, home for him, wife Viv and children Rory, 6, and Lucy, 2, has been Ponteland, the affluent village just to the north of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, but Blair is ready now to make the short hop back across the border, bypassing the home city of Edinburgh to start a new two-year contract with Glasgow. I’m meeting Scotland’s most-capped scrum-half in the Tap and Tackle bar overlooking Kingston Park’s pristine 3G artificial pitch and the 34-year-old tells me he has enjoyed his time in England’s north-east.
“Yes, it has been an enjoyable two years,” he says. “The first season was difficult. The Aviva Premiership is a very different league in terms of style and attitude to what I was used to and it took a long time to work things out.
“With the old pitch and the weather conditions we often get here, it was very heavy for long parts of the season, which didn’t suit my style.
Mike BlairGlasgow has very much been a great feel-good story for Scottish rugby
“But this year’s been brilliant. The new 3G pitch has been great and the way we’ve tried to play suits me much better. So, overall, it’s been a good two years.”
Like many Scots, it is an area that was reasonably familiar to Blair before he moved from Brive in 2013. In his salad days he spent a year at Durham University and, of course, there has been the obligatory stag do experience in the fleshpots of the Quayside and Bigg Market. “It’s even worse weather here than in Scotland if you can believe that,” he chuckles, “but Newcastle is a fun city and the people are great.”
Now it’s time for a new challenge as he heads to Gregor Townsend’s Glasgow for his last hurrah as a player and, he hopes, a pathway into the next phase of his career once the boots are finally hung up.
“It’s something that’s been in the pipeline for some time,” he explains. “Gregor has been in touch throughout my time here at Newcastle and he’d asked me what my plans were, initially, for this year just gone and, latterly, for next season. I thought he was just being friendly and taking an interest in me, but then, a few months ago, he said he’d be interested in having me up there.
“I will be looking to play and push for that scrum-half place but, obviously with Grayson Hart, Henry Pyrgos and Ali Price, they’ve got good nines there. I hope I can bring more to the squad and those individuals than just look at me playing.
“One of the things Gregor said to me is ‘Mike, if you do your job right then you shouldn’t be playing for us’. We’ll see how things develop, and how much the playing side balances out with the coaching, mentoring and analysis stuff Gregor wants me doing. How things pan out in the first season will very much inform what happens in the second.”
Blair has been mightily impressed with Glasgow’s progress in the past two years and can’t wait to be part of it.
He said: “It has very much been a great feel-good story for Scottish rugby and it’s great that it has been centred so much on young Scottish players. They’ve really got that right. Along with some quality imports, who have been stand-out players like Niko Matawalu, Josh Strauss and DTH van der Merwe. But the bulk of that team is Scottish. The balance is great and Gregor has obviously done a brilliant job. Everyone is very positive about the professionalism and the ideas he brings. That’s the reason I really wanted to get involved.”
Blair spent ten years between 2002 and 2012 with his hometown pro team and is very much a quintessential man of the capital but the former Edinburgh Academical insists it won’t be strange turning out for the men from the west.
“It would have been strange if I’d gone straight from Edinburgh to Glasgow,” he says. “But it’s different now that I’ve been away from Scotland a few years. The big pull was to work with Gregor and there was never any approach from Edinburgh. It’s all about how I want my career to progress now.”
Blair took the plunge out of his comfort zone back in 2012 when he headed for Brive in France, where Townsend had played in the late 1990s.
“A brilliant experience, exactly what we were looking for,” is how Blair describes that year in the Limousin region. “I’d lived in Edinburgh all my life – 31 years – bar that year at Durham. My wife was the same, apart from four years in Glasgow.
“So we knew Edinburgh very well and we forced ourselves to try something different. I told Edinburgh early on in 2011-12 that I wouldn’t be staying the following season before I’d organised anything. So we put ourselves in the position where we were definitely going to be leaving for something different and Brive was certainly that.
”It was a really enjoyable time for the family, just what we were looking for, and Lucy was born there so it will always be a special place to us.”
During an 85-cap career, Blair played in three World Cups but he’s not sure how much of this year’s he’ll be able to follow due to his Glasgow duties.
“It’s going to be a big World Cup for us,” he says. “It will be vital to win those early pool matches.
“There are no easy games –Japan and the USA will be very well drilled and competitive and that’s before you even get to Samoa and South Africa. I think Scotland will be required to do different things in different games to beat that opposition.
“The three World Cups I was involved in were all very different experiences at very different stages of my career. In 2003 I had only had a handful of caps. Bryan Redpath was the captain so I only started one game against the Americans. But it was a fantastic experience over there in Australia.
“Looking back now, we weren’t maybe as professional as we could have been, but then neither were the other teams. France in 2007 was completely different, professionalism had really set in by then and it was much more serious and organised.
And then 2011 in New Zealand was a step up again – it gets tougher and tougher to get through to those quarter-finals.”
Blair has been retired from the Test arena for three years but still keeps his hand in with a bit of hosting at BT Murrayfield. It is, he says, something he is very much at peace with.
“I quite like being away from it, in truth,” he reveals. “I remember the first game of the 2013 Six Nations against England was the first game when I wasn’t involved after international retirement. I can genuinely say I didn’t miss it and at no point was I thinking ‘I wish I was out there’.
“I enjoyed the experience of being in the crowd and watching as a fan. I’ve had my stint.”