IN the end, it was not so much a decision as accepting the inevitable. With the effects of a concussion initially suffered back in December still troubling him, Mike Blair knew he was highly unlikely to get fully match fit in time for Glasgow Warriors’ assault on the Pro 12 play-offs, and with Henry Pyrgos on scintillating form since returning from wrist surgery, Ali Price really stepping up to the plate this season and Grayson Hart also in the mix, there really was no need to cling on to the idea of bowing out with an emotional swansong on the park.
Blair moved back north from Newcastle Falcons to reconnect with kindred spirit Gregor Townsend on a two year playing contract last summer, but the plan had always been for him to use that period to move into coaching. He had, naturally, hoped it would happen at his own pace – but that wasn’t to be.
So, the day after his 35th birthday, a press conference was held and the news was released: Mike Blair the rugby player is no more but an exciting new chapter in his life is already under way.
“I have had a couple [of concussions] this year and it was a factor but not the only factor. With age it is something that has been going through my mind. I had not actually planned to play this season but had been in constant touch with Gregor [Townsend]. He said, maybe February or March of last year, that he would like me to play, and I’ve really enjoyed the season – it’s a brilliant environment to be part of. However, with only a few games left this season, I have unfortunately run out of time to be able to regain my fitness before the end of this campaign,” he explained.
“My recent spell on the side-lines has allowed me to start coaching earlier than expected, working with the scrum-halves at the club, all of whom are currently playing very well. They have been a pleasure to work with and I look forward to working with them more as the season draws to a close, and extending this role to the rest of the squad as we move into next season,” he added.
“I’ll be an assistant coach, I’m going to have three or four different roles, mainly aligned with the attack side of things – there will be a skills element, a mentoring element with the nines and with the players transitioning from the academy or coming to the club in their first year.”
“It’s really exciting, I had a meeting with Gregor and we discussed what I was going to be doing, and if I’d written down what I wanted to do and shown it to him, it was pretty much exactly what he had written down to present to me.”
“I am very comfortable with the decision [to quit playing]. I saw the neurologist about five or six weeks ago and he said: ‘See how things go for the next four to six weeks and then review things after that.’ Well, I still have the symptoms but I am very confident that they will go away.”
While Blair is clearly excited about what the future holds, there was inevitably a sense of sadness as he considered what he is giving up, and also a touch of frustration that his career coincided with one of the rockier patches in Scottish rugby’s tumultuous history.
“The bad bits are the ones that kind of stick in your head, unfortunately, and it takes nice people, family and friends, to say you’ve done quite well as well. Getting to the European semi with Edinburgh [in 2012] was the big one; the England victory in 2008 was the first game I captained Scotland at home; beating Australia away from home [in 2012]. You always look at the opportunities missed or potential situations where things could have gone better but we’ve all got regrets,” he reflected.
Blair could also mention his role in helping Edinburgh reach a Heineken Cup quarter-final showdown against Toulouse in 2004, or that he made the five man shortlist for World Rugby Player of the Year in 2008 alongside the likes of Dan Carter, Sergio Parisse and eventual winner Shane Williams, or that he was a Lions tourist to South Africa in 2009.
But, then again, he could talk about the national team surrendering a 10 point lead to lose 26-23 to Canada on his Test debut back in the summer of 2002, the Six Nations whitewashes in 2004 and 2012, and being part of the first Scotland squad not to make it to the knock-out stages of the World Cup in 2011 [even if it was by the narrowest of margins from a hellishly tricky group].
It certainly has been a rocky road, but the former scrum-half is in no doubt that the national team is in a better position now than it was when he started out.
“It’s funny because Scottish rugby … and it’s sort of coincided with my career … has been a fairly tough period, but there’s always green shoots out there and certainly at the moment with the Scottish team here’s a strength in depth coming through that we’ve not had,” he said.
“I’d look at the centres as the best example of that. Five years ago we had one or two guys, there wasn’t that strength, you had an injury and you’d be playing a guy out of position to cover. Now we have Alex Dunbar, Peter Horne, Matt Scott and Mark Bennett, guys who’d start for a lot of teams in the Northern hemisphere. That’s a great way to see how Scottish rugby has moved on. I was speaking to Jason O’Halloran this week and he was saying how lucky he feels to have that kind of ability available to him.”
“The coaching side of things has really changed, and maybe not just in Scottish rugby,” he added. “I was speaking to Ken McEwan who was the strength and conditioning guy when I was first at Edinburgh and he did everything: speed work, weights work, the post-game stuff. Now there’s a team of four full time staff so that, in terms of professionalism, is a massive change. We had Frank Hadden and Henry Edwards as the coaches, now you’ve got layers of coaching for all disciplines.”
Perhaps, deep down, Blair is slightly envious of the youngsters coming through now, who are entering a professional environment which is far more sophisticated than he encountered when at their stage.
But you can only live in the time slot you are allocated, and he should take comfort in the knowledge that the hard yards he put in when the odds were so often stacked against his team is paying dividends now. It has put him in the happy position whereby he is able to make the seamless transition from elite level player to elite level coach, without the inconvenience of having to prove himself further down the food chain first.
“I see there’s a hell of a lot of learning to be done. It’s certainly not the case that because you’ve been a player you can get into coaching,” he acknowledged. “I’ve had some experience –when I was at Newcastle and when I’ve been injured here – so I’ve had a taste and worked with some very good coaches along the way. You need to take the best bits from each one and I’ve been fortunate to have lots of coaches who worked in different ways and styles, so I want to put all that altogether and find my way of doing things.”