Mike Blair says he's at home coaching Glasgow Warriors

It's an odd one, make no mistake. The man who was the archetypal Edinburgh Rugby player is now doing the 'Sean Lineen shuffle' along the M8 twice a day. For a decade or more Mike Blair was synonymous with Edinburgh rugby, having spent almost his entire life in the capital, so how on earth did he fetch up coaching the Warriors?

Glasgow Warriors' Mike Blair is very much hands-on. Picture: Gary Hutchison
Glasgow Warriors' Mike Blair is very much hands-on. Picture: Gary Hutchison

“Gregor [Townsend] is the main influence there,” says the little scrum-half, the start of who’s international career just overlapped with the end of the stand-off’s .

“I kept in touch with Gregor all the way through even when he wasn’t coaching me. When he was coaching at Glasgow and I was playing at Brive, when I was in Newcastle, we would just keep in touch and chat about rugby.

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“I had a chat with Gregor about what was going on here and the negotiation was almost, ‘OK, you play for us for one season and then come and help coach’ because obviously with the World Cup Henry Pyrgos was away.

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to play but I was absolutely sure I wanted to do the coaching and Glasgow are a great group to start off your coaching career and Gregor as well. As for Edinburgh, I was never approached by them.”

Such in the impact Blair has made that he was mentioned by some punters as a potential replacement for Gregor Townsend after the Warriors boss earned promotion to the national post early this month, despite his coaching experience being measured in months rather than years.

Certainly he shares with his mentor Townsend some hard-nosed necessities, including a healthy confidence in his own abilities that every top-class coach requires. Whether Blair can command the respect of the players who, just last season, were playing alongside him is another matter.

As he says more than once, he is “fresh” into the job and despite a John Macphail funded trip to New Zealand in the summer, he still has barely got past chapter one of the Big Book of Coaching.

Thankfully the former scrum half has recovered from the head knock that ended his career last season, at least when he avoids exercise. “I have taken retirement from sport quite literally.”

And with his noggin now working as per the instruction manual, Blair is better placed than most to comment on the differences between Scotland’s two pro-teams.

“I had three years away from Edinburgh and a lot happens in three years,” he says. “I remember in my first year at Newcastle Falcons we were playing Edinburgh in the pre-season and I thought this was going to be weird, playing against guys I had played with for ten years.

“We got off the bus at the same time as Edinburgh and I reckon the first 12 or 14 guys who came off the Edinburgh bus, I didn’t know who they were! The turnover at Edinburgh in the last four years has been really high, the turnover of coaches as well. I think now they are getting some stability. Gregor is in his fifth year at Glasgow, Matt Taylor has been here for four years and some players have been here for a long time, a lot of guys are members of the 100 cap club, so there is lots to build on. I think the stability at Edinburgh over the next little while will be key to them lifting their performance as well.”

Glasgow have a brand new plastic pitch to play on so we can assume more of the same high tempo game plan that is Townsend’s signature dish, but the club have lost some big names in the past few years, Leone Nakarawa just the latest, none of whom has been replaced. This squad, I put it to Blair, is surely weaker than the one which triumphed two seasons back?

“I don’t agree with that,” he shoots right back. “We have lost some very influential players but I think there is massive strength in depth across the squad and I think that is key for the Pro12. Last year during the World Cup we lost 21 players and still made the semi-finals of the league. We believe we should have done a lot better but to get to the semis with so many players away was a real achievement.

“We have lost some key players but there is another layer of experience on the guys who are still here. Leonardo Sarto has a bit of X-factor about him, he scored a cracking try against Harlequins out of absolutely nothing and I think we do have the strength in depth to deal with the losses.”

Blair talks with enthusiasm about some of Glasgow’s new signings one of whom, Tujiuee Uanivi (and good luck to the stadium announcer with that one) was in the Brive academy during Blair’s short sojourn in France. The Namibian lock/breakaway comes in as a replacement for Nakarawa and both he and Canadian prop Djustice Sears-Duru are fingered as ones worth watching once they get up to speed with the sheer physicality and intensity of the game that Glasgow hopes to generate.

With a fixture against Canada’s A team on Tuesday at Stirling Country’s Bridgehaugh ground – Scotstoun’s new pitch is still bedding in – Sears-Duru’s first match of the season is likely to be against rather than for Glasgow.

But if the club have recruited well, and the proof of that is at least one week away, the opposition have hardly been standing still. For all the much vaunted discrepancy between the spending power of “Frenchlish” clubs and the Pro12 the Celts have landed some pretty impressive catches as Blair is quick to highlight.

Ulster have signed Springbok flanker Marcell Coetzee and All Black Charles Piutau from Wasps – “these guys are not just good club players, they are good international players” – and Canterbury winger Johnny McNicholl has joined the Scarlets. But if Connacht took everyone by surprise last season who might do the same this time out?

“Cardiff seem to have got more money and they have a new centre Willis Halaholo, a very Welsh name,” Blair laughs. “He’s come in [as a Welsh project player from the Hurricanes] and number eight Nick Williams has moved over from Ulster. Cardiff didn’t have a great season last season but they will look to build on that.

“It is a bit of a cliché at this time of year, how many teams can win the league, but we didn’t see it happening with Connacht last year, although they have been building for the last two or three seasons. Having Pat Lam there, he is a very talented coach, and they are not going to struggle this season. I don’t think they are a one season wonder.

“It’s a really important part of the season, we have an interesting start with games that are all very winnable but they are tough. I was out for a meal with [Edinburgh assistant coach] Duncan Hodge and he mentioned Edinburgh’s first five of six games and none of them are easy, so the start is all important.”

Blair has a contract that takes him to the end of May and after that... might the incoming Dave Rennie offer him an extension?

“I have no idea,” comes the reply. “If you can find out for me that would be fantastic.

“The important thing for me is to show Gregor that I add real value and I am sure that he will pass his thoughts on to Dave Rennie.

“I don’t know what his plans are, whether he’ll bring his own team in, but I am incredibly fresh to coaching so the best thing I can do, rather than worry about next year, is to do as well as I can this season.”

Or might Townsend take his former half-back partner with him when he takes the national reins?

At least that would have the benefit of seeing Blair back in Edinburgh where you feel he belongs.