MIKE BLAIR believes that the current Scotland squad can beat any team in the world when they play at their best, but has warned that the gap between the team’s top showings and their bad days needs to narrow significantly heading into the World Cup.
In the last 18 months, Scotland have really hit their straps to defeat England at Murrayfield (25-13, February 2018), Argentina in Resistencia (44-15, June 2018) and Fiji at Murrayfield (54-17, November 2018). They also bounced back amazingly from 31-0 down to draw 38-38 with England at Twickenham four months ago.
But when they have not been on form the level of performance has dropped drastically. The worst of the showings over the period were probably the 34-7 loss to Wales in Cardiff (February 2018), the defeat to USA in Houston (30-29, June 2018) and the reverse to France in Paris (27-10, February 2019).
With four World Cup warm-up games coming up against France and Georgia, who Scotland will play twice each in August and early September, assistant coach Blair wants the side to find more consistency ahead of the showpiece event which sees them up against Ireland, Samoa, Russia and hosts Japan in Pool A.
“We feel that if we play to the best of our ability we can beat any team in the world, but there is a big jump between playing to the best of your ability and not,” 38-year-old Blair said.
“There are things we need to get right, but if we are able to put exactly what we want on the pitch, we have a chance of being able to beat anyone in the world.
“Consistency is absolutely crucial for us. Throughout the Six Nations earlier this year we had some moments of brilliance. There were long periods when we were all over the opposition – 30, 40 or 60 minutes in the Italian game for example [Scotland eventually won 33-20]. But we’ve also had periods in games where we’ve almost fallen off a cliff. That last 20 against Italy and the first half against England, for example.
“That consistency of performance is something that we as coaches have been focusing on and trying to get that message across to the players.
“There are some dangerous teams in our pool. You have Samoa, who don’t traditionally gather for long periods of time before games, but this time they’ll have four to six weeks together to get themselves sorted out and they have some world class players all over the place.
“Japan, as well, playing at home in the last Pool game and while we don’t know as much about Russia, they’re a big group of men.
“Everyone is talking about the Ireland game and, yes, first up, all eyes will be on that one, but we’re also aware that if we don’t play to the best of our ability in the other games then they are potential banana skins.”
Lessons from Liverpool
Meanwhile, Blair admits he keenly studies other elite sporting environments to try and learn tips that may give the Scotland squad an edge heading into the World Cup.
This Sunday will see football’s Champions League champions Liverpool take on Italian side Napoli in a friendly match at Murrayfield. Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend is keen to attend with his coaching staff if they can and Blair, the former scrum-half who earned 85 caps for his country and toured with the British & Irish Lions, has a lot of admiration for Jurgen Klopp’s men.
Blair pinpoints the quickly taken corner by Trent Alexander-Arnold which led to a Divock Origi goal in the 4-0 win over Barcelona in May as the type of quick thinking Scotland’s players can learn from going forward.
“I have not heard the update, but there was chat about going to the game on Sunday,” Blair said. “Learning from other teams is really important. There is an example from Liverpool when they took a quick corner, that kind of stuff can translate into what we do.
“From a defensive point of view we are about always being switched on and never turning your back, while from an attacking point of view you are trying to create opportunities where you are against unstructured defences.
“It is about getting a balance in a squad, a balance of opinions and experiences. You need your guys who have been there for the last seven or eight years, but you also need your guys who have been there for a year.
“The young guys bring the fearlessness, the energy and the exuberance to the group, you need to harness that.
“The types of personalities you have within the squad, that is massively important.
“It’s building a group who want to play for each other, but who also want to have fun off the pitch because we feel that marries in well with what happens on the pitch.
“Having really studious guys and guys who really bring energy off the pitch brings a squad together and that is really important when you are trying to grow and move forward as a unit.”