Mike Blair reveals his coaching influences ahead of his first game in charge of Edinburgh

Nine years after leaving the club as a player, Mike Blair will take charge of Edinburgh Rugby for the first time on Saturday when Newcastle Falcons come north to open the capital side’s new stadium.

Mike Blair in action for Edinburgh during their memorable Heineken Cup win over Racing Metro in the 2011-12 season.

It is a significant moment for both club and coach and though Blair was keen to play down his own role in the occasion, it is impossible to ignore.

After four years under Richard Cockerill, it’s a fresh start for Edinburgh in more ways than one. Blair has promised to do things differently to his predecessor whose achievements were considerable but whose departure was prompted by more than a whiff of player power.

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The new man knows he needs to get the squad on board as he tries to impose his own personality and says he has been impressed by their willingness to embrace his methods.

Mike Blair has encouraged the Edinburgh players to express themselves. Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS

“We have tried to do things a little bit differently from what has happened before,” said Blair. “I’m really impressed by how quickly guys are picking things up, offering their own opinions and working collaboratively to find a way we are comfortable playing.

“I’m also aware that this is the first hit-out we are going to have so expectation of effort and skill levels will be really high, but there might be a couple of things that take a bit of time to bed in.

“I’ve been looking forward to this since about three weeks ago. I’ve been desperate to get this first game done to see where we are at and see the boys expressing themselves and playing well.”

Since the coaching change was made the Edinburgh players have stressed repeatedly the importance of retaining the discipline, high standards and defensive solidity instilled by Cockerill. But they also want to burnish that by playing with more freedom.

Mike Blair will take charge of Edinburgh for the first time against Newcastle on Saturday.

Edinburgh under Blair are expected to be more attack-minded, more creative and more willing to allow players to express themselves.

He may be a novice as a head coach, but a quick perusal of the former scrum-half’s CV suggests he is tailor-made for the job. A former captain of Edinburgh and Scotland, he spent 10 years with his hometown club before spreading his wings with stints at Brive, Newcastle and Glasgow Warriors.

Along the way he won 85 Scotland caps, was called up by the Lions, led Edinburgh to a Heineken Cup semi-final and was shortlisted for World Rugby Player of the Year alongside Shane Williams (the eventual winner), Dan Carter, Sergio Parisse and Ryan Jones.

After this stellar playing career he cut his teeth in coaching as an assistant firstly at Glasgow and then Scotland. With Gregor Townsend away with the Lions, Blair was promoted to interim head coach of the national side for the summer tour, only for it to be wiped out by Covid.

Edinburgh head coach Mike Blair at the club's new stadium. Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS

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He says his coaching style will be shaped chiefly by the two men he worked under at Scotland and Glasgow.

“I think my biggest two influences would probably be Gregor and Dave Rennie,” he said. “They are both outstanding coaches who got to what they wanted to do really successfully but did it in completely different ways. So I take a bit of each of them and try to find a bit of common ground between them because they are probably both at different ends of the spectrum with how they did things.”

The more abrasive Rennie, who took Glasgow to the 2019 Pro14 final, is now in charge of the Wallabies. Townsend went one better, leading the Warriors to a final triumph in 2015 when it was the Pro12 before taking the reins of the national side.

Having worked with both, Blair is now his own man and he dismissed the notion that he had experimented with his first Edinburgh team.

“It’s not experimentation,” he stressed. “We’ve put a lot of thought into who plays and how much time guys get. The main thing is giving players the opportunity to express themselves and get out and have a hit out.

“Newcastle have the benefit of one game under their belts already, so they will be slightly more game ready than us, so the challenge for us is to get up to speed as quickly as possible.

“We’ve got a number of different strategies around how many minutes different guys are playing.”

Summer signings Henry Immelman, Ben Vellacott and Luan de Bruin will all start for Edinburgh. Immelman, who joined Edinburgh from French Top 14 side Montpellier, is picked at full-back, with wingers Jack Blain and Damien Hoyland completing the back-three.

Scrum-half Vellacott, who was signed from Wasps, is paired with Scotland international Jaco van der Walt at half-back. The centres are Cammy Hutchison and Mark Bennett.

South African De Bruin packs downs with fellow South African prop Boan Venter either side of Dave Cherry in the front-row.

Jamie Hodgson and Marshall Sykes form the second-row pairing, with Magnus Bradbury and Luke Crosbie named at blindside and openside flanker respectively, and Nick Haining selected at No 8.

Notable omissions include both club co-captains, Grant Gilchrist and Stuart McInally, prop WP Nel, new centre James Lang and Scotland wing Darcy Graham.

“We’ve decided to keep a couple of guys back who will potentially have heavier workloads this season. But the plan would be to involve them in next week’s game,” said Blair, with one eye on the friendly against Benetton on Saturday week.

With a new coach, a new stadium and a new artificial pitch, the sense of change around Edinburgh is palpable but Blair would prefer the focus to be on the players.

“This isn’t about me and my first game, this is about Edinburgh’s first game in their new stadium and the players having the freedom to express themselves and work hard for each other,” he said.

Edinburgh (v Newcastle Falcons, ERS, Saturday, 3pm)

Henry Immelman; Jack Blain, Mark Bennett, Cammy Hutchison, Damien Hoyand; Jaco van der Walt, Ben Vellacott; Boan Venter, David Cherry, Luan de Bruin, Marshall Sykes, Jamie Hodgson, Magnus Bradbury, Luke Crosbie, Nick Haining.

Subs: Pierre Schoeman, Harry Lloyd, Adam McBurney, Patrick Harrison, Lee-Roy Atalifo, Angus Williams, Pierce Phillips, Daniel Suddon, Ben Muncaster, Connor Boyle, Charlie Shiel, Henry Pyrgos, Charlie Savala, Ramiro Moyano, Jordan Venter, James Johnstone, Patrick Anderson.

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