Mike Blair: Scotland can be street-wise when they need to be

Attack coach says that the national team have players capable of varying their game-plan mid match when required

Greig Laidlaw
Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw's game management ability will be key to Scotland's success against Fiji, says attack coach Mike Blair ***Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk***

SCOTLAND assistant coach Mike Blair says it is a mistake to view the national team as one-trick ponies. The boys in blue have inherited a reputation under Gregor Townsend as playing a high-octane brand of rugby which is exhilarating to watch when it all clicks into place – but can come crashing down around their ears when accuracy is just slightly off-kilter.

Those seeking evidence of this perceived vulnerability in Scotland’s approach do not need to dig too deep. Scotland’s capitulation in Wales in February and their embarrassing loss to the USA in Houston in June spring immediately to mind. And then, of course, there was Suva in the summer of 2017, when Scotland entered their final tour match high in confidence after defeating Australia in their own back yard the previous week, but ended up being overrun by a disciplined and powerful Fiji performance.

With a rematch against the Pacific Islanders on the agenda this weekend, it will be fascinating to see just how far the Scotland team has developed in 17-months. The context of the two matches may be significantly different, but the fundamental question remains the same: can Scotland find a successful way of playing their high-risk-high-reward style against a team which lives off punishing turnover ball?

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“It’s a question that gets asked quite a lot, about what our style is,” mused assistant coach Blair. “The tempo game is definitely a big feature of ours – but we believe that, with the selections we make, we can play in different ways.

“We feel we’ve got a strong maul so that will be something we definitely look to do. We also have ball-carriers – guys like Alex Dunbar – who will make the gain-line.We’ve got passers like Stuart Hogg, Peter Horne in Finn Russell. And game-managers in Greig Laidlaw as well.

“I think we’ve got an intelligent group and we go in with a plan – but see how the game is going, then come up with appropriate game-management from there.”

Blair then stressed that while all the excitement around the Fijian squad is entirely understandable, this Scotland team believes that it is more than a match for the Pacific Islanders when it comes to X-factor performers.

“We want to acknowledge what Fiji have because they’ve got some special individuals, but we’ve got some special individuals as well,” he said. “Stuart Hogg is a guy who would make it into a Fiji Sevens team. We’ve got a lot of talent within our squad. So hopefully the Fijian flyers will be saying it’s a great honour to play against our flair players.”

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Having said that, the need to temper the team’s natural exuberance with some hard-headed rugby common-sense is demonstrated in the selection of Laidlaw at scrum-half. Ali Price struggled last weekend to vary Scotland’s attack, meaning that Wales’ ferocious line-speed was free to swallow up wave-upon-wave of blue attack without feeling much need to check itself.

The Scotland management team will be looking for a typically authoritative display from their re-installed captain – who missed last weekend’s match because he was on club duty in France – with Laidlaw’s ability to pick when to go wide, when to send the big boys round the corner and when to kick, likely to be crucial to the home team’s plan to frustrate the tourists.

“In terms composure and game understanding, he’s one of the best out there,” said Blair of Laidlaw. “He’s a very intelligent player. He can read how the game is going and adapt to that. It’s really important for us to have that.

“And his basics, his passing and kicking with Clermont, have been excellent as well. We talk about this kind of super-strength he has with that leadership side – but he’s also got the basic skills. We’re pleased the way he’s going so far.

“Him coming back into the squad and captaining the team will get everyone a good boost.”

Blair believes that Russell’ return at stand-off can also add layers of sophistication to Scotland’s attacking game, with his game having already developed a great deal during the few short months he has been in France since last summer’s switch from Glasgow Warriors to Racing 92.

“With nines and tens, a lot of how you learn is from your own experiences,” said Blair. “No matter how much you say something about game management or what we want to do, it’s not until you experience different situations and adapt yourself, that you make a better job of it. So, it’s not necessarily just the move to Racing that has done it – [although] the way they play has helped – but the experiences he’s had. He’s adapting to that, he’s reading pictures quickly and adapting his decisions to fit.

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“I think he’s got a good balance to his game. In France you typically kick a little bit more than you’d imagine. You think of the French league and think they throw it around from anywhere but there’s a little bit more structure there, and they put a lot of onus and pressure on the nine and ten in France to deal with those [game-management] areas and he’s done that well.

“He’s had a great start to the season, he’s enjoying himself, and when Finn’s enjoying himself that brings out his best rugby. Racing have been pretty good with him as well in terms of when he’s able to come in and work with us, so that’s been great as well.”

With Hogg coming back in at full-back, Sean Maitland on the wing and Horne being handed the number 12 jersey, there is definitely a sense of greater maturity in this Scotland back-line (305 caps in total) than there was in Cardiff last weekend (121 in total).

“That’s the ideal situation, isn’t it?” Blair concluded. “When you’ve got players who have more and more experience, going from five and ten caps to suddenly sitting there with 30 and 40, that is where you want to go as an international team.Because it means you’ve got guys learning and understanding, appreciating different ways of playing the game.

“I think Fiji are like a lot of teams in that, if you give them a sniff and they get on a roll, the chests get puffed out and they bring energy to the game.If we can suffocate them and put a bit of pressure on them, suddenly the legs start feeling heavier a bit earlier on.

“So, that will be our priority, to put pressure on them so they don’t have that opportunity to puff the chests out and get an extra swagger in their step.”

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About David Barnes 3038 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including he Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.