MIKE BLAIR: THE INSIDE LINE

THE SCHOOLMATE

Peter Burns –

“He played for the [Edinburgh Academy] school 1st XV for three years and in our final year he was almost a one-man team. Every year from primary five he was captain and scrum-half, but he was also our goal-kicker and during our final season he even threw in at the lineout because our hooker, Malcolm Smith, couldn’t throw straight. Mike would lob the ball in and then run round to receive the pass from the jumper.”

“We won most of our games that year, most of them largely down to him. One game we did lose was against Merchiston in our final fixture. Frank Hadden was their coach and Phil Godman was their ten. Apparently during training in the build-up to that match, Frank had marked a rucking pad and told his players that it was Mike: if they could take him out of the game, then they would win. Forget the other fourteen guys on the pitch. Mike still played exceptionally, they could hardly get near him, but nevertheless they won and it felt a disappointing way for him to finish a glowing school career.”

“As his pals, it became important for us to all make sure we kept his feet on the ground throughout his career. Like slagging the hell out of him when he claimed in an interview that his nickname at school had been ‘Blade’– a total fabrication. It made matters worse when we heard that it had stuck with his teammates; he was even called it on the Lions tour in 2009.”

“I remember walking across the school yard on our final day when Howard Haslett, our chaplain, took Mike aside just as we were leaving. ‘Remember us when you win your first cap and when you’re a lion,’ he said. The greatest testament to Mike as a rugby player, a man and a friend is that he always has.”

THE TEAMMATE

Al Kellock –

“Everyone knows what he offered in terms of his passing ability, his kicking from hand, and his reading of the game, but the thing that always comes to mind for me when I think of Mike Blair as a rugby player is the cover tackles he used to make.”

“Mike has never been and never will be the biggest fan of the gym, but he more than made up for that by being as brave a rugby player as you are ever likely to encounter. You wouldn’t have to spend long going through tapes of his games to find him somehow appearing out of nowhere to tackle a player who had looked certain to score, and he will not only bring this guy down but he will somehow get himself wrapped around the ball and into a position to stop it from being grounded.”

“I’ve known Mike since we were about 16 years old and playing age-grade rugby. We used to call him ‘Farquhar’ because he was well spoken and went to private school in Edinburgh, but if anyone had any doubts about whether he was tough enough to be a successful rugby player then that quickly changed when they saw him play. He’s been consistently excellent since those days, which is a great achievement when you think about it – that’s 20 years and rugby isn’t even his number one sport. He’s one of these annoying guys who is good at everything – rugby, cricket, golf and especially table tennis. That was his big thing!

“I’ve no doubt that the competition he had with Chris Cusiter and indeed Rory Lawson for that Scotland number nine jersey was crucial to the player he became. They were all great players and they all pushed each other on because they were each so determined to make that spot in the team their own.”

“If you are speaking to Cus [Cusiter], tell him that I think Mike is the best scrum-half I ever played with. That will hopefully get him to say something juicy for you.”

THE RIVAL

Chris Cusiter –

“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.”

“I was aware of him at schoolboy level but it is all myth and rumour at that age. Then we played age group 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.

“He is definitely one of the most astute readers of the game, not only tactically but in his awareness of space and his ability to create space for others. It was certainly something he had over me. I tended to be less tactical and perhaps more physical, and I think that is why he has been able to play at such a high level for so long – because he had that tactical awareness which made him able to adapt his game to suit the changing circumstances.”

THE COACH

Gregor Townsend –

“I didn’t play with Mike too often but I do wind him up now and again about our first game together as a half-back pairing. It was against USA in the 2003 Rugby World Cup and I ended up getting a bad back picking up some of his passes…it was a wet night so I’ll let him off!” “He developed into a very skilful and intelligent player. He always looked to put others into space but also had a very good running game. He became more creative throughout his career in terms of manipulating defences and he was one of the best nines in the game at playing at a high tempo.”

“I was delighted when Mike agreed to come to Glasgow last summer. He exceeded our expectations on the field with some outstanding performances and would have been in the running for player of the season before picking up his recent injury. In my opinion he is one of Scotland’s best ever rugby players and it was great to see him play in a Warriors jersey this season. It’s disappointing that he’s not able to finish his career on his own terms, but he can reflect on a brilliant career both at club and at international level.”

“Mike’s influence off the field has already had an impact at the club, as our three scrum-halves, Ali Price, Grayson Hart and Henry Pyrgos are all playing well and that is partly down to Mike’s coaching and guidance. We’re looking forward to him joining us in a full-time role as a coach next season. He’s helped me with the analysis of opposition and he has some great ideas at improving our attack.  He’ll get lots of opportunities to develop as a coach here and he’s excited about that. He’ll join our coaching group as an assistant with a primary focus on attack and skills, as well as continuing his work as a scrum-half coach.”

About David Barnes 2971 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.