Former Edinburgh skipper Mike Blair believes his old club’s run to a European final will have lifted confidence and bodes well for a crunch season next term.
Blair spent ten years from 2002 to 2012 at his home city pro team, but next season he will be along the M8 at Glasgow after agreeing a two-year deal with Gregor Townsend’s Guinness Pro12 finalists. Scotland’s most-capped scrum-half brought down the curtain on two years with Newcastle Falcons a week past Saturday, scoring a try in his last game at Kingston Park against Harlequins.
The 34-year-old spent a year at Brive in France after leaving Edinburgh in 2012 and is now looking forward to a new challenge with the Warriors, where he aims to play while also branching out to develop more off-field responsibilities.
However, he retains a keen interest in his former team and was impressed with the charge to the European Challenge Cup final, which Alan Solomons’ men lost 19-13 to Gloucester at Twickenham Stoop earlier in the month.
As injuries mounted, Edinburgh’s league campaign petered out as the target of a top-six finish was missed, but Blair believes progress has been made.
“They used the European Challenge Cup really well,” said the former Edinburgh Academical. “Things were looking a bit sticky before that tournament started. They got a lot of confidence from the win in Bordeaux. Some teams maybe didn’t play their full squads and Edinburgh used it as a vehicle to get wins and build confidence. Gloucester, who went on to beat them in the final, adopted a similar approach and also reaped benefits in terms of their league form improving as a result.
“It shows what a good competition it can be. You can use it as a good way to blood new players, which can be useful but obviously reduces your chances of progressing, or you can use it like Edinburgh have to build a winning mentality.”
Much of the build-up to that Euro final focused on the scrum-half showdown between another ex-Edinburgh skipper, Greg Laidlaw, and young 21-year-old capital prospect Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, who was recently named Pro12 young player of the year.
Like many, Blair has been highly impressed by what he has seen from Hidalgo-Clyne and said: “He’s an interesting player, very talented. His obvious strengths are his athletic ability, pace and power.
“He’s got stuff to learn but he has good guys around him with Greig at Scotland and I understand Duncan Paterson works with the nines at Edinburgh. The great thing about Sam is that he has all the basics there and now just needs time and experience to become a real international standard scrum-half.”
Blair, of course, had rivalries of his own for the Scotland No.9 jersey – primarily Chris Cusiter and Rory Lawson. While some may thrive on competition, the 2009 Lions tourist revealed that he was much happier to be the undisputed first choice.
“I personally was more comfortable when I knew I was going to be selected, certainly for Scotland,” he said. “From 2007 to 2009 I started something like 34 or 35 games out of 39. And in that period I felt I played my best rugby, because I knew Frank Hadden wanted me to play me. Other guys like to have that rivalry and feel they need to prove themselves. But I prefer to be the No 1 choice and know the coach respects what I can do and tries to mould the team around that.”
Scrum-half is a position that Scotland have always seemed to consistently produce high-calibre talents, but Blair has no single theory as to why this may be.
“I don’t see it as a production line really because, down the years, they’ve all been so different,” he explained. “You talk about Bryan Redpath and Gary Armstrong, both greats and both from the Borders but that was the only similarities. Brush [Bryan Redpath] was a passing and organising scrum-half, while Gary was basically a fourth back row.
“Myself and Cus had different styles too. So I don’t think there is anything particularly Scotland does to produce these good scrum-halves, these things just happen sometimes and we’ve been fortunate to often have not just two but maybe even three really good nines competing for the Scotland jersey.”