MIKE BLAIR was one under par after 10 holes on the picturesque Glen golf course in North Berwick last month when the buzz of his mobile phone interrupted his sense of equanimity, and derailed what was shaping up to be a pretty decent score.
It was from Scottish Rugby’s chief executive Mark Dodson, summoning Blair – who was an assistant coach to the Scotland national team at the time – to a meeting that afternoon, and while the prospect of being offered the job as Edinburgh’s new head coach did cross his mind, the 40-year-old was unsettled enough to drop six shots over the next three holes.
“Your head naturally goes towards the negative, like what have HR found out about me?!” he chuckles. “But fortunately it was positive.”
Once it had become apparent at that afternoon’s meeting that this was not another Keith Russell moment, it didn’t take Blair long to get excited about the opportunity he was being offered.
“It’s an interesting one as it came pretty quickly on me,” he says. “I tend not to plan too heavily for myself. The job that I’m in is kind of out of your control in a way. It’s done on opinions and how players perform, so I don’t think you can plan too far ahead.
“I had two-and-a-half years left on my Scotland contract up until the end of the World Cup, so even when Cockers left it wasn’t like: ‘Here we go, I’m in!’.
“As soon as we started talking about it, I got quite excited by it all,” he continues. “The new stadium, the potential of the squad, going to my former club, representing the city I grew up in – it’s not an opportunity that comes around too often. There are only two head coach jobs in professional rugby in Scotland. It became something I was really keen to do, and it moved pretty quickly from there.”
Blair joined up with the squad for the first time on Monday past. His late arrival means that almost all of Edinburgh’s recruitment for next season had been done by his predecessor, Richard Cockerill, although he says there may be some scope to bring in fresh blood in the front-row.
“That’s an area we need to see with Rory Sutherland moving on late in the day,” says Blair, who has also revealed that he plans to appoint at least one and probably two new assistant coaches as soon as possible.
“Once I’ve been in the saddle for a bit longer, I can start to get a bit of an understanding about areas where we need to increase people, or where people’s contracts are up – and from a budgeting point of view, what we can or can’t do.
“It will be a long-term process. What I’m learning is it will be a year-round process. You have to plan ahead and work out who’s likely to go, who might be paid more money, or who might be paid less.”
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Stand-off is another area where Edinburgh might appear short of depth, with the expected arrival of Jono Lance before last season derailed by visa issues having left Jaco van der Walt as the only out-and-out No10 in the senior squad at the start of the 2020-21 campaign. However, youngsters Nathan Chamberlain and Charlie Savala have since picked up valuable game-time, new signing James Lang can also play there, and the head coach says he is “really interested” in seeing Blair Kinghorn get more time in the saddle at first receiver. So, the new head coach indicated bringing in a player in that position is not a priority.
One immediate change Blair has made is a commitment to give fringe players more game-time through Super6, which was something Cockerill was conspicuously reluctant to do during his tenure.
“One of the first things I did when I came in was take three guys – Connor Boyle, Jordan Venter and Nathan Chamberlain – out of pre season and get them involved in Super6,” he explains. “These are young guys who didn’t play much rugby last year so I wanted to get them into Super6. My plan will be to get guys games unless they’re playing for us.”
“We’re not professional weightlifters or runners, we’re rugby players, and the only way I’m going to select people is based on what they do on a rugby pitch.”