MIKE BLAIR says his rugby horizons do not currently stretch beyond helping Edinburgh to get their URC campaign back on track whilst continuing their good form in the European Champions Cup – despite the uncertainty surrounding his employment status beyond the end of the current season.
The 41-year-old former Scotland scrum-half announced last Friday morning that he will step down as head coach of the capital outfitting the summer, and while he naturally feels some anxiety over what the future holds, Blair stressed that he is entirely comfortable that he has made the right decision for the right reasons, which will ultimately benefit himself and the club.
“I have loved doing the role I am doing in terms of the learning I have got out of it and how I have tried to improve myself, but it has made it really clear to me that the coaching part of it is the bit I really enjoy,” he explained.
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“When I thought about all the other bits I have got to do, whether it is recruitment, budget, academies or player release, I realised I had to make a decision on whether it would be the head coach or the attack coach bit I would stop doing, because I didn’t feel I could do a really good job in both areas.
“The stuff on the field is the stuff I get the buzz from – thinking about what we can do differently to improve the team – and that is where I have decided I want my focus to go.
“I am really pleased with the decision – it is something really positive for me.
“The first port of call now is to get the head coach role sorted out, then we will look at me,” he replied, when asked if he would be interested in staying on at Edinburgh working under a new head coach. “I have taken, you may say, a bit of a risk in doing what I have done because I have effectively handed in my notice and don’t have a job to go to, but I will wait and see what happens.
“I played at the club for eleven years and these two years as head coach, and loved every minutes of it. I feel I have a really good affinity with the players but ultimately that decision [about whether he can stay on in assistant role] does not rest with me.
“Sure, a lot of it is about what’s best for me individually but I want the club to be as strong as possible, and I’ve worked under some outstanding head coaches – Dave Rennie and Gregor Townsend are two that particularly stand-out who I loved working under – so this isn’t about me and how I’d feel. We’ll wait and see what happens when that bridge comes.”
Blair took on the Edinburgh job when Richard Cockerill left the abruptly in the summer of 2021. As a hometown boy and a club legend, who has a very close relationship with national team head coach Gregor Townsend, he was the ideal fit in many respects.
His first season went pretty well with the players clearly feeling liberated by his attacking game-plan and more consensual approach to coaching. The team produced some excellent performances on their way to qualifying for the United Rugby Championship play-offs and the quarter-finals of the European Challenge Cup.
While this season hasn’t been quite the same success so far – with six defeats in Edinburgh’s last seven URC matches leaving them languishing 11th in the table – he had plenty of credit in the bank, and the team’s performances in Europe in reaching the last 16 of the Champions Cup have been encouraging.
“I don’t think it happened too quickly, but I do think I could have been better prepared for it,” said Blair, when asked if he has any regrets about accepting the job when it was offered. “It was a brilliant opportunity. The perfect timing is never going to come up so it’s about making the most of the situation.
“I’ve reached out to guys like Steve Tandy, Gregor Townsend, Andy Friend at Connacht and Brad Mooar [the former New Zealand assistant coach and Scarlets head coach] prior to him coming here [to join the Scotland coach team], asking about their experiences, what they’ve been through, how that can help me. So I feel I’ve been proactive from that side of things.
“I believe I’m adapting, I believe I’m improving, but then there is the all-encompassing nature of it,” he added. “When I go home, I’m at home but I’m not really at home. I’m thinking selections, I’m thinking recruitment, I’m thinking scheduling, all these different bits, and it’s probably taking away from stuff like: ‘How do we want to attack at our best? What can we do in training to make that better? Can I watch the Super Rugby games and keep myself up to speed with that side of things?’
“It’s just the ability to get your head out of the job – because I care so much. I read a great book by a guy called Cody Royle called ‘The Tough Stuff’ in which he interviews head coaches from all different sports, including rugby union, American Football, rugby league. And he talks about the weight of the job, looking after 45 players, other coaches and the rest of the support team.
“I genuinely care about our guys. As I said to them on Friday that I feel like a father to some of them, I feel like a brother to others, and that does weigh on you a little bit. At the moment, I want to put a real focus on what is my passion and that’s around hands-on coaching.
“This isn’t a case of: ‘I’m never going to do it [be a head coach] again’. I’ve had a couple of years of it and I’m going to have a period of reflection at some stage. This has been a rollercoaster and I’ve not really had the time to sit back and say: ‘Where do we go from here?’ and: ‘If I were to do it again, what would I do differently?’.
“This experience will have definitely done me good. Being able to go away and reflect and think about what I could have done differently will stand me in better stead for the future.”
Prior, to taking the Edinburgh job, Blair was part of the Scotland coaching set-up, and he was asked whether a return to that national role might appeal to him ahead of this Autumn’s World Cup.
“I don’t know how to answer this without giving a soundbite,” he said. “Of course it’s possible but it’s not something that has been discussed at all. I’m pleased I made the decision because it’s something I’ve been deliberating for a few months. Now I’m taking a deep breath and I’m putting all my focus into having a really good end of season with Edinburgh.”
He also played a straight bat when asked if a move away from Scotland (where there are limited professional coaching opportunities) to somewhere such as France might be on the cards.
“I’ll be unemployed after this season runs out so I’ll be looking for work, but I don’t want to get caught up in that,” he said. “I’m pleased that Scottish Rugby and Edinburgh Rugby have time to get a good plan in place going forward, to put us in a really good position for next year – and I’ll deal with myself after that.”
Very honest which reflects the kind of player and indeed person he is. Hope he gets a job that is a real good fit for him. Can only wish him the best for the future.
the world is full of people promoted because they are excellent at their job. Far too many turn out to be not so great at the promoted job. Many do ok but do not enjoy the promoted job or the extra stress on self and family it brings
I have only the greatest respect for Mike Blair for his self awareness and refreshing honesty. Go well Mike
Ok could be not have continued in the Head Coach role but with a FOR sitting above him and presumably dealing with all the admin,contracts,new signings with etc? Of course that might add 150/200k to the SRI budgets.Is that the way the English Prem clubs are set up?
Does sound as if his job really is 24/7 and just too all consuming for one person.
My initial thoughts following on from previous articles prior to reading the interview was that Blair having been cajoled into taking the position was that having decided it wasn’t for him, those that coerced him, more for their benefit than his perhaps, should support his decision and ensure he isn’t disadvantaged: reading between the lines I am hopeful that is the case.
I know from personal knowledge of someone who was singled out for senior positions from the position of Director to higher things [definitely not me] who after 3 years took a step back to where they were comfortable, ‘I couldn’t get around writing reports on people knowing that I would be responsible for whether they would get a bonus, were promoted or released, that’s not what I want to do, it’s not what I am good at’.
Mike Blair seems to have had the courage and intelligence to make a similar decision. Good luck to him.
I imagine Blair would benefit from being an assistant coach somewhere else. Learn more of the ropes day to day and gain from a more experienced head coach. Certainly brought Edinburgh to life and had them playing great rugby. Seems to me he has good potential and worth investing in.
Sorry to see Mike leave – it does call into question the management structure within the SRU that a coach is so swamped by the minutae of the job that he can’t focus on his primary role – ie coach.
every head coach is swamped by minutae, unless there is a DoR above them, which is far from universal. The Edin head coach does get some input from the SRU DoR, although myself I think that set up causes as many issues as it solves.
The answer as Ardent says is an Edin DoR. There is the obvious downside he mentions, cost; the other is that many top coaches won’t work under a DoR, they (understandably) want full control
I applaud such a frank and revealing interview from Mike. Few are able to admit to things they don’t like in their job. That is a great strength. I hope he gets a position that enables him to continue developing.
Very refreshing, honest and heartening discussion from Mike. Deserves huge credit for speaking honestly and openly about the pressures and difficulties of the job, and how one deals with that.
Wishing him the best of luck for whatever he does next.