The Italians kicked off the United Rugby Championship campaign with a gritty 22-18 win over the Stormers at the weekend, coming back from 7-18 down after 45 minutes to defeat the South African side in Treviso.
Benetton will enjoy home advantage again this Saturday as they play host to an Edinburgh team looking to build on their own winning start to the season. Blair’s team played with a mix of flair and determination to see off the Scarlets 26-22 but the new coach is under no illusions about the task that awaits them at the Stadio Monigo.
“We saw them put in a solid performance against a good Stormers team, they’ve got a lot of momentum behind them, they’ve won six of their last seven games and they’re a quality outfit,” said Blair.
Edinburgh ran in eight tries in the friendly win over Benetton but Blair has cautioned his players to expect an altogether different test this time around.
“We’re obviously playing away from home. They had five different starters against Stormers than they had against us. And I’ve spoken before about warm-up games - you’re using them for a purpose, you’re using them to get game-time or to try something or to give guys opportunities. But this is competitive now.”
The transformation in Benetton’s fortunes was one of the great rugby stories of last season. They went from Pro14 makeweights, losing 15 games on the bounce and finishing bottom of the heap, to Rainbow Cup winners, defeating South African heavyweights the Bulls in the final.
Blair expects them to be challenging at the top end of the URC this season and puts their revival down to two simple things.
“Confidence and belief,” said the coach. “Two things that are really important to Italian rugby, I think. When they believe that they can win and challenge and they feel that they’ve got the ability to do it then it becomes a completely different team to play against.
“You do get stuck in a rut when you are losing games but it just takes a couple of games to turn it around and you get the confidence and they’ve really built on that this season.
“They’ve changed from being that team near the bottom of the league that you look to beat into a team that I think is going to be challenging at the top of the league this year.”
Like Edinburgh, Benetton changed head coaches in the summer, with Azzurri stalwart Marco Bortolami stepping up to replace Kieran Crowley who is now the Italy boss. Bortolami was forwards coach under Crowley so the handover has been relatively smooth, with former Harlequins head of rugby Paul Gustard remaining part of the team.
While delighted to make a winning start as Edinburgh coach, Blair has identified areas for improvement.
“There was a lot of good stuff on Saturday but as I think I said afterwards there are also lots of things we need to review and work on and the sign of a good team is how quickly you take those lessons on,” he said.