Mike Blair unsure of head coach ambitions and happy to live in the moment as he takes charge of Scotland summer tour

While most of the focus on Scotland’s summer tour squad has centred on the 17 uncapped players, it would be remiss not to dwell on the role of Mike Blair.

Mike Blair will step up from his assistant coach's role to take charge of Scotland's summer tour. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS
Mike Blair will step up from his assistant coach's role to take charge of Scotland's summer tour. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS

In the absence of Gregor Townsend, who has been charged with ensuring the Lions attack fires on all cylinders in South Africa, Blair is stepping up as interim head coach.

The former scrum-half could hardly be described as inexperienced but this will be his first gig as head honcho.

Blair has been part of Townsend’s backroom team as skills coach since the latter took over at Scotland in summer 2017 and he worked previously with the national boss at Glasgow Warriors.

Mike Blair says he has had his eyes opened as to how hard Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend works. Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images

He will lead the side across three summer fixtures, beginning with the A international against England at Welford Road on June 27 and continuing with Test matches in Romania on July 10 and Georgia seven days later.

When quizzed about his head coaching ambitions, Blair doesn’t exude ruthless ambition but more a sense of realism based on the vagaries of the professional game.

“Whenever I’m asked about my future, my goals and what I plan to do, I always wonder if I give a bit of a weak response,” he says. “I try not to think too much about what’s coming and to live in the moment.

“Some people tut at me for not planning ahead but it’s a career where you don’t have a huge amount of control. You do as good a job as you can do and that can be a success or it can not be.

Jamie Dobie impressed while training with Scotland and taking on the 'Antoine Dupont role' during the build-up to the France match. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

“I’m playing it year to year, but at the same time coming up does give me the opportunity to see what work goes on and whether it’s something I massively thrive on or think that there’s too much on my plate.

“There are lots of things to think about, but I do feel that in the last couple of weeks, looking into all the different things you have control of, the conversations you have, I’m really enjoying it.”

In his brief time in charge, Blair says he has had his eyes opened as to how much work Townsend puts into the job. The unearthing of the 17 new boys, for example, involved extensive research into uncovering Scottish-qualified players from diverse backgrounds and then persuading them to commit.

Having already worked his magic on Cam Redpath and Gary Graham, Townsend has now convinced the likes of Ewan Ashman, Cameron Henderson and Josh Bayliss that their futures lie with the thistle rather than the rose.

Matt Scott is back in the Scotland squad after impressing for Leicester Tigers this season. Picture: Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

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The summer squad is radically different to the one that played so impressively in the Six Nations but Blair’s task nonetheless is to try to maintain the level of performance that saw Scotland beat England and France away and notch up a record win over Italy.

He will also look to put his own imprint on the team in what are likely to be challenging conditions in the July heat of Bucharest and Tbilisi.

“What’s important for me is that we maintain the momentum we’ve had over the last 18 months with Scotland,” he said. “My plan isn’t to come in and change absolutely everything, it’s to build on what we’ve got already.

“The hardest thing is going to be cutting stuff out of my ideas while still making the team have a little flutter of Mike Blair about it as well, while building on what we’ve already got.”

The former Scotland captain will have some familiar faces alongside him, in the shape of forwards coach John Dalziel and scrum expert Pieter de Villiers, while Glasgow’s Peter Murchie will look after defensive duties in the absence of Steve Tandy who is also with the Lions.

Jim Mallinder, Scottish Rugby’s performance director, will also be on the tour.

“Jim has a lot of experience as a head coach,” said Blair of the former Sale and Northampton chief. “The plan is to have him as a sounding board.

“He will be taking in some of the under-20 games as well so he will be coming and going, but we do expect him to be there a lot of the time.”

As a world class No.9 who won 85 caps and toured with the Lions, it was particularly interesting to hear Blair talk about the emergence of Jamie Dobie. The Glasgow Warriors teenager, who turns 20 on Monday, had been training with Scotland for experience this season but was then promoted to the full squad towards the end of the Six Nations.

“Jamie has been in our plans for a while,” said Blair. “He was in the autumn camp, but it was during the Six Nations that he really caught the eye.

“He was training as Antoine Dupont for the French game and did a pretty good job impersonating him. We’re really excited about him. He’s a guy we want to get more rugby but we want to bring him into the environment as well and give him opportunities with us.”

Amid the slew of new names in the 37-man squad, there was also room for a notable recall, with Matt Scott in line to pull on a Scotland jersey for the first time in four years.

The centre left Edinburgh for Leicester during the 2019/20 season and has played 17 matches for the Tigers in the current campaign, helping them reach the European Challenge Cup final.

Despite his years in the international wilderness, Scott’s 39 caps make him the most experienced member of the summer squad and Blair has been impressed by the 30-year-old’s recent form.

“His super strength is that ability to win the gain line,” said the coach. “Leicester Tigers have started to use him in that way, getting front foot ball for his team. He’s worked incredibly hard in defence, his aggression in the tackle, and his speed to contact work which is so important for a centre in modern rugby.

“There’s been some positive change in Matt’s game and he massively deserves to be back in the squad. He’s coming back in almost as a new player but as someone with a lot of experience as well. Knowing the guy that Matt is, he’ll be keen to pass those experiences on and take up a leadership role.”

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