Scotland v Italy: Mike Blair says Ireland debrief was honest and constructive

Scotland assistant coach says that the team's game-plan will not alter significantly if Finn Russell is not fit to play against Italy

Mike Blair says Scotland will bounce back from recent disappointments. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Scotland interim head coach Mike Blair. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

THERE doesn’t seem to have been any teacups smashing against the wall or doors being kicked off hinges, but Mike Blair insists that there was enough straight-talking this [Tuesday] morning to ensure that the Scotland team’s debrief of their desperately disappointing defeat to Ireland was not an exercise in equivocation.

“We are fortunate in that we have built good relationships up with the players so we feel that they are able to speak their minds,” he said. “The last couple of days these conversations have been happening and then Gregor [Townsend] led on the meeting today as a result of conversations he has had with the players and coaches.

“They put their hands up before stuff was even said. We have got a very self-aware group that put their hands up and say they have made mistakes which is for the betterment of the team.


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“It is something we have got better at. Previously we would be concerned about what the other player or your mate would say behind their backs but there is a lot of honesty and understanding in this group. As long as you put your point across in a respectful way that the points are being made for improvement in team performance. It is something we have seen more of in the last couple of campaigns and it is something that will improve us as a team.”

This Scotland squad like to advertise how tight they are as a group, how they like each other’s company and how that drives their performances, but given that basic problems such as lapses in concentration and discipline continue to be highlighted as the causes of inconsistency, you can’t help but wonder if the environment needs to become a bit more cut-throat.

“I think frustration is the best word,” said Blair, when asked if the Irish autopsy had been emotionally charged. “It’s certainly not aggressive or angry because we are all going for the same goal. You could see the frustration across the whole group, but with a six-day turnaround you’ve got to put that to bed.

“We had our review meeting this morning [Tuesday] and we have to pick our chins up and move on now. We can’t stay thinking about that when we have a Test match in a few days’ time.

“We’re a level headed group among the coaches and players,” he added. “We were really pleased with a lot of stuff at Twickenham and we wanted to build in that in the two home games. We certainly felt we got that first half of the Welsh game, but unfortunately it didn’t unfold how we wanted.

“The Irish game was a different kind of game, you can’t compare it to the Wales game. We didn’t get into our game quick enough the first 10 to 15 minutes.

“It depends whether you’re glass half full or half empty I guess. There’s certainly negative stuff you can talk about but there’s positives as well. We could have been even further down after that first 20 minutes but we were 10-8 up. Then we were 24-10 down and got to 24-all. Glass half full says ‘we’re not playing our best but got right back into the game’, glass half empty says ‘why didn’t we play well enough and what happened at the end when we gave them the opportunity to win the game?’.

“We’re not too excited one way or disappointed the other, we know we’ve got a young group who are constantly improving, it’s just a shame to have a couple of blips.”

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Whether enough has been done to change the trajectory of a Six Nations campaign which began in style with a historic victory over England at Twickenham and has headed downhill ever since will become apparent during the next 10 days. First Scotland face Italy at Murrayfield in a match which they could really do with winning in some style (as all their Six Nations rivals have done this year), before taking on a French team in Paris the following Friday (probably/hopefully) who are still in the hunt for a top of the table finish in this championship.

Scotland expect to be without Finn Russell for the Italy match, but Blair is hopeful he will have recovered from his concussion in time to face France. Adam Hastings is suspended until midnight after the game, so Jaco van der Walt is the obvious replacement for Saturday, but captain Stuart Hogg could do a shift there – as he did during the final 18 minutes of Sunday’s match, during the 10 minutes Russell spent in the sin-bin against England five weeks ago, and during the final 11 minutes of the team’s victory over Wales last October – if the coaching team decide they need more of a threat in the No10 jersey.

Changing personnel

Blair was keeping his cards close to his chest on the question of who will be given the job but insisted that the team’s general philosophy will remain the same.

“Jaco has been with us for a bit of time, he got his first cap against Ireland and showed lots of positive things in that game so we are expecting whoever comes in will do a good job,” he said.

“It would not change the way we play. There will be slight change in personnel so maybe some of the smaller details will change, but whoever plays at ten will feel they want to do a similar job to what we have been trying to do.

“There is a balance to it and we have to play to our strengths as well. We have played some good rugby in attack over the campaign which has really stretched all three teams we have played against.”

Blair added that second-row Jonny Gray’s involvement remains in the balance after he picked up a shoulder injury against Ireland and added that there is likely to be a fair bit of tinkering elsewhere in the match-day squad in order to keep everyone fresh.

“The reality of two six-day turnarounds is that there will be changes,” he said. “Some of them will be enforced to keep players fresh, there could be a multitude of reasons, but we probably planned it would be very unlikely we would go with the same team three games on the trot.

“We’ve had worse – a four day turn around in the World Cup was more difficulty – but t’s certainly not ideal. It’s an intense game we play and it’s even more intense at international level. It puts demand on the players but we have to manage them and get the best out of the situation.”

Superman Scott Steele

Blair also pointed out that if all else fails as they try to juggle their playing resources during this hectic period, Scotland are in the fortunate position of having their very own Mr Versatile to call on in the shape of Scott Steele – their back-up scrum-half who came off the bench as emergency cover at blindside flanker on Sunday.

“The great thing about Scott is that he is a brilliant guy,” smiled Blair. “He has had three caps: one on the wing, one at scrum-half and one in the back-row. That will be a trivia question in years to come.

“He actually suited the role on Sunday. He must have cleared out about 12 breakdowns. His energy was great. He was trying to avoid carrying the ball close to the line because he doesn’t quite have the size of others, but he was putting everything into it. I thought he did a brilliant job. His scrum technique was really good as well.”

“Back in my day I don’t know what I would have done if I was asked to go on the back-row,” added Blair, who played 85 games for Scotland at scrum-half between 2002 and 2012. “I might have suggested it wasn’t the best idea. But Scott did great.”


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About David Barnes 4026 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The 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.

9 Comments

  1. Why isn’t Richie Gray involved? He is the best lineout jumper by far. Is he injured or just out of favour?

  2. Agree largely with Neil and AbuLeila. Thing Steele starts at scrum half versus Italy and Pricenis dropped. Think there may be some complacency there since George Horne has been out and no real pressure on Price. Cherry deserves a start although Turners throwing in wasn’t the only line out issue. Also agree with Huw Jones starting.should.never be out the side IMO.Think VDM will run riot v Italy.

  3. Interesting piece, it’s all very well putting your hand up and saying yeah I made a mistake but when are you going t9 learn from it? Eg Ali Price two or three times now in successive games charged down and making poor decisions. Whether that’s tiredness or what I do not know but Townsend needs to see and fix that.
    Also all sounds very calm in the camp as they are not too disappointed, but I wonder if someone should be thumping the table and saying it’s not good enough individually or collectively? The number of errors, penalties, wrong decisions, are clearly not good enough at this level. At some point you need use the learning to start delivering.
    Finally I see the Italy game almost as a no win game as unless we thump them it will be seen as a failure, and having been to few of these games home and away I cannot see this happening. Btw I agree with the above Scott Steele has to get a game.

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    • The charge down at the end of the game was caused in large part by Bhatti not doing his job.

      He’s supposed to be next to the ruck, running out on a line that stops any jumper getting near Price. Instead, he’s about three feet too far wide.

      It allowed the Ireland player to run through unopposed. In fact, it made it easy for the jumper because Price then thinks he has an extra half-second, when in fact he doesn’t.

      Price is getting hammered for a poor clearance on that box kick. When it was actually the fault of the Prop – possibly in part because he’s not played international level for years.

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  4. Rest the possible injuries. Picking on form shown last game, you want to reward some of the wider squad now.

    Stuart Hogg (C) – Sean Maitland – Huw Jones – Sam Johnson – Darcy Graham – Jaco Van Der Valt – Scott Steele – Matt Fagerson – Hamish Watson – Jamie Ritchie – Sam Skinner – Grant Gilchrist – Zander Fagerson – Dave Cherry – Rory Sutherland

    Duhan Van Der Merwe – Duncan Taylor – Ali Price – Nick Haining – Alex Craig – Simon Berghan – George Turner – Oli Kebble

    Harris was ok but Jones has earned a shot and its a game we wont need his defence to win. Taylor is better bench cover. Experience on the bench with a few players who will want to redeem themselves (Duhan, Price, Turner)

    Two players starting for the first time and a uncapped on the bench was a consideration behind not having Dobie involved.

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    • That would be a decent selection. Got to agree with placing Ali and George to the bench. Thought George would have been replaced earlier in the game, giving the failure of the line out I don’t get why not. Ali has played well but his box kicks are exposing the team to high risks.Looks like he needs to adjust his technique. After saying ‘I will go on as flanker no problem coach’, Scott surely earns a start.

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      • Price’s box kick late game wasn’t a technique issue. It was deep in Scotland’s half, and Ireland were running out of time – so they had to attack it.

        Unfortunately, Bhatti, who should have been blocking any attempt to get near Price on that kick, is standing about three feet wider than he should be.

        It creates a massive channel for Beirne to run through and get to Price. Worse still, Price sees Bhatti setting up. So he thinks he has more time than he actually does.

        The failure of that kick at the end was much more on Bhatti, than it was Price.

      • “Ali has played well but his box kicks are exposing the team to high risks.”

        It was the fault of his protection (Bhatti) versus Ireland. Not Price’s kicking.

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