Image courtesy of Scottish Rugby/SNS Group
IT is the end of an era. Chris Cusiter yesterday confirmed that he is bringing the curtain down on one of the most accomplished careers of any Scottish rugby player during the professional era. The announcement comes just two weeks after Mike Blair, his old friend and erstwhile rival for the dark blue number nine jersey, succumbed to the march of time in revealing his retirement from the game.
Over the best part of a decade, this pair battled it out to top the pecking order as the nation’s foremost scrum-half. For much of that time, they were operating in struggling Scotland teams, but both men consistently managed to rise above the mediocrity of their surroundings to earn reputations as players of genuine world class pedigree.
Nobody has ever doubted that Scotland was truly blessed to have access to such exceptional exponents of the scrum-half craft during this period (with Rory Lawson also pushing his way into the reckoning after 2007). However, there was also a sense of frustration at times that such resources were not spread more evenly throughout a team in which there was a debilitating paucity of top level options in other key areas. Indeed, there was some semi-serious chat early on about trying to convert Blair to stand-off.
Two very different types of player with contrasting personalities, there is no doubting the fact that Blair and Cusiter brought the best out of each other.
Blair’s feel for the game and lightening quick-service gave him an edge over most of rivals as he emerged as the heir apparent to Bryan Redpath during the build-up to the 2003 World Cup, and Cusiter happily admits to being mildly obsessed with trying to match those aspects of his rival’s game.
However, Cusiter also brought a tenacity and physicality which blew everyone away when he burst onto the international scene in February 2004 and then dominated the selection process for 16 uninterrupted matches through to March 2015.
“In the early days I probably felt like a bit of an outsider coming from Aberdeen while Mike was Edinburgh born and bred. He was a year older than me so slightly further down the line, and I did feel like I had more to prove – maybe I did have a chip on my shoulder,” recalled Cusiter
“I was aware of him at schoolboy level but it is all myth and rumour at that age. Then we played age together a little bit, but it was only when we went professional that things really took off. We played against each other a bunch of times – him at Edinburgh and me at the Borders – and we both had an eye on that Scotland jersey.
“It did push me on because I understood how good a player he was and how good I would have to be to get in ahead of him. So, we did have a bit of a ding-dong battle over the years.”
“We were always civil to each other, but we were both very focussed on trying to get that jersey. It did soften a little bit as we got older and more mature, and eventually we became good friends, which we certainly weren’t right at the start.”
The pair (who ended up being named as co-captains of the national team by Andy Robinson back in 2009) chatted after Blair’s retirement announcement a few weeks ago. At that stage Cusiter was admitting privately that his time as a player had also come to an end and they lamented that they had not been able to bow out on their own terms.
“We agreed that very few people get the Al Kellock send-off, when the team he captained for all those years won the league title for the first time. It would have been nice to finish by winning a big game like that, but that’s life and missing the last few weeks of a long and happy career is not the end of the world,” he surmised.
“I had been thinking about calling it a day since last summer and wanted to put plans in place this season for my next step,” he added. “I kept open the opportunity of doing another year but as the season went on I knew that the time was right, so getting that concussion in the Harlequins game [at the start of March] wasn’t ideal– but it didn’t make sense to risk rushing back so that I could wave to the fans one last time.”
Cusiter made it into Clive Woodward’s squad for the 2005 Lions tour to New Zealand, and while that was a pretty miserable expedition in general, he insists he has fond memories of the experience.
“I played in the midweek team and we had a great time. We won all our games and to be a Lion in New Zealand is something I’m pretty proud of. I was definitely a better player when I didn’t make the tour to South Africa in 2009, but you take your chance when you get it, and in 2005 I was in the right place at the right time, I was playing well and avoided injury, so I know I’m pretty lucky to have been a part of that,” he said.
Other highlights include being part of the Boroughmuir team which won the Scottish championship in 2003, the Perpignan side which won the French Top 14 title in 2009 and reaching the final of the Pro12 with Glasgow Warriors in 2014.
“I only had one year at Boroughmuir and it was great. Sean Lineen was coaching and we had a really good team with a lot of guys like Malcolm Clapperton, Lindsay Graham and Ally Warnock – who had been there for a while and this was their moment,” he said.
“We played some really good rugby and I remember beating Heriot’s at Goldenacre to win the title, then heading back up to Meggetland to celebrate all night long. Those will be the times I will remember and cherish in years to come – when you are with people you really like and respect, and can enjoy that feeling of having achieved something together.
“That happened at Boroughmuir, it happened at Perpignan and it happened at Glasgow – although we didn’t quite manage to win the title.”
At international level, he didn’t really enjoy the sort of success his ability deserved but there were a few great days along the way. He was involved throughout Scotland’s best Six Nations campaign in 2006, when they picked up wins over France, England and Italy; he started when they beat Ireland at Croke Park in 2010; and was also in the team which defeated Australia in their own backyard during the summer of 2012.
Cusiter also captained the Scotland team which defeated Australia at Murrayfield in 2009, but that was a bitter-sweet experience given that he had to retire from the match before the half hour mark after sustaining a head knock.
“There were a few things I would rather have avoided – injuries and the odd bad game here or there – but if you play long enough then that’s what happens. Overall, I’m very happy,” he said.
And so he moves on to the next stage of his life: immigrating to Los Angeles where he plans to set up a business retailing Scottish whisky.
“My wife and I were there about a year and a half ago and we decided then that we wanted to experience living out there for our next adventure. At about that time I developed a real passion for Scottish whisky – not so much drinking it, which I haven’t been able to do much of because of my job in the last few years – but the history of one of Scotland’s great exports, and the hard-work and passion which goes into ensuring it continues to be such a great product,” he explained.
“I did a whisky course at Moray College, I’ve read a lot of books about it, and I’m heading off to Islay later this month – which should be great because I can taste a little bit more of it now!”
“It’s a real leap for me and I know it is going to be a lot of hard work, but I’m excited about the challenge.”
There are no immediate plans to move into coaching, but he expects to be back involved in the game at some point.
“I think I need to take a bit of a break because there is so much going on, but I definitely want to stay involved in rugby because it has been so amazing to me. It has allowed me to make a lot of great friends and have some fantastic experiences. They have just started a pro league over there so hopefully there will be an opportunity to get involved in a year or two, because I know I will miss it,” he concluded.