MIKE BLAIR has confirmed that there will be a minute’s silence observed ahead of tomorrow [Friday] night’s European Challenge Cup clash between Edinburgh and Pau in tribute to Tom Smith, the Scotland and Lions legend who died on Wednesday.
“Stuart McInally [Edinburgh’s co-captain] addressed the guys this morning,” explained the capital club’s head coach. “Tom obviously spent a spell with us coaching – 2009 to 2012 – so he knew a few of our guys, and he spent some time in the national camp as well. Stuart spoke really well about the impact Tom had and we felt it was appropriate as a club to mark that.”
Blair’s voice cracked, and he had to pause to collect his emotions, as he reflected on the death of his old team-mate, mentor and friend. The pair pulled on the Scotland jersey together a dozen times in the early 2000s and Blair later played under Smith at Edinburgh.
“I remember it really clearly, when Gregor [Townsend] told us at the World Cup in 2019 about his diagnosis and the outlook,” recalled the former Scotland assistant coach, who took over the Edinburgh job at the start of this season. “At that point, it was stage four [cancer] and the time on it was months, so the fight he has shown over three years, he was just … I was really upset by it yesterday.”
“I knew a couple of weeks ago that he was struggling and sent him a message and he was back to me within two minutes, thinking of other people. It’s a big loss.”
“You can see through the tributes on social media about the type of character he was. Some of it is about the quality of the player, but a lot of it is about the quality of the man.”
Blair recalled Smith’s influence in 2005, when the fortunes of the national team plummeted following a breakdown in the relationship between Australian head coach Matt Williams and the player group.
“Tom’s chat before the 2005 Scotland versus England game when the coaches had left the room was a moment I will always remember,” he said. “Around that time, we were having a little bit of a struggle under Matt Williams and the results hadn’t been too positive, and Tom pulled the guys together and really galvanised them before that game.
“He also spoke well at half-time in the Scotland versus Wales game when we were 30 points down then managed to pull it back.
“He just did things in a nice way. He was such a decent human being. He just wanted to help the team and push us on. If Tom spoke, it was generally something important or passionate, or something that had frustrated him. He was an incredibly well-respected player and man, and great around his family.”
Blair has made nine changes to his starting XV for tonight’s game, which Edinburgh need to win to ensure a home draw in the last 16.
Stand-off Blair Kinghorn and flanker Hamish Watson are unavailable due to the player welfare protocols which are in place for international squad members. Meanwhile, Edinburgh were not obligated to rest centres Mark Bennett and James Lang, or scrum-half Ben Vellacott, but decided that doing so for this game is the best strategy for the individual and the team.
“We’re aware that although they didn’t get a huge amount of minutes in the Six Nations, they were away for pretty much that whole period,” explained Blair. “The guys who stayed with us played and trained hard during that period, but they also had two separate weeks off to freshen up.
“If we play as well as I believe we can over the next few weeks then there is a possibility that we can have multiple games in a row without any break at all, so it’s important we manage those guys and give opportunities to those who have put their hand up.”
The absence of Bennett and Lang opens the door for relatively inexperienced duo Cammy Hutchison and Matt Currie to form a fresh-faced centre partnership.
“Cammy started a fair bit for us at the start of the season and was impressive with his ball-carrying and his frontline defence, while Matt’s got a kind of ghosting ability, a bit like [All Black] Conrad Smith, he’s slinky in the hips,” said Blair. “He leads the team quite well from a defensive point of view, is one of our smartest defenders in that 13 channel and he’ll need to be with what we’re going to be up against on Friday night.”
In the pack, a knee injury to Ben Muncaster, who has been a revelation at No 8 for the side during the Six Nations, rules him out this week, but is not expected to keep 20-year-old out for more than a week or two. However, his absence puts a further squeeze on Edinburgh’s back-row resources, with Watson being rested while Viliame Mata, Jamie Ritchie, Luke Crosbie, Mesu Kunavula and Nick Haining already sideline through injury. As a consequence, second-row Glen Young will be deployed at blindside against Pau, while two more second-rows – Jamie Hodgson and Pierce Phillips – and no back-rows are named on the bench.
“It’s just little kink in the road that we’ve got to deal with,” said Blair. “I’ve said many times to the press before that when there is some adversity, or a change, or a different challenge, it is something that this group has stepped up to. So, I’m really looking forward to seeing them playing tomorrow evening.”
“Glen had a run-out for us at six when he had an internal game and he was really impressive,” he added. “He’s done that six-type role in attack previously, for Harlequins, they used him on the edge. He’s a really talented athlete and he’s played at lot of sevens in his time. We’re pleased to have him in the six jersey and believe it will add to our line-out. His size will be an asset and he’ll be good around the pitch as well.”
Edinburgh (v Pau at the DAM Health Stadium, 8pm GMT Friday): H Immelman; D Graham, M Currie, C Hutchison, R Moyano; J van der Walt, H Pyrgos; P Schoeman, S McInally, L De Bruin, M Sykes, G Gilchrist (captain), G Young, C Boyle, M Bradbury. Substitutes: A McBurney, B Venter, W Nel, J Hodgson, P Phillips, C Shiel, C Savala, C Dean.