Rugby: Edinburgh veteran has no fear of Ulster

Edinburgh Rugby team training on the Murrayfield back pitches prior to Saturday's Heineken Cup semi final against Ulster
Edinburgh Rugby team training on the Murrayfield back pitches prior to Saturday's Heineken Cup semi final against Ulster
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Mike BLAIR has already scored a try against Ulster on a winner-takes-all occasion but the Edinburgh Rugby scrum-half will go into Saturday’s Heineken European Cup semi-final against the same opposition fuelled by memories of a lesson learned from that same Celtic Cup final clash of 2003.

The 31-year-old, who is likely to be one of only three Scots survivors of that tussle in the match-day squad for Dublin’s Aviva Stadium, along with Allan Jacobsen and Andy Kelly, remembers the Celtic Cup as one that got away – and an experience he is determined to avoid.

Ulster won 27-21 in a Murrayfield downpour, despite Edinburgh outscoring them 3-2 in try terms, and Blair said: “They put us away fairly comfortably and even when I scored a try late on they had the last word with a penalty [David Humphreys’ fifth] in almost the final play.

“I’ve not forgotten how Ulster made the most of their opportunities that day and that is what knock-out rugby is about.

“When you get chances you have to take them because there aren’t going to be a huge amount.”

Even before Edinburgh knew their prize for overcoming Toulouse in the semi-final would be a tilt at Ulster, that Celtic Cup final had influenced their thinking, as Blair revealed: “Previously, the biggest crowd for one of our home matches was the Celtic final [17,174] so the target was always to beat it when Toulouse visited three weeks ago.”

And how, with some 38,000 streaming into Murrayfield.

“What that game also reminded me was how vociferous an Ulster crowd can be,” said Blair, making it clear that the aim will be to give them little to shout about in the Aviva so that Edinburgh will know they are getting on top.

And, if Edinburgh do succeed, then it would mean the 80-times capped ace would – according to ERC records – make his 50th appearance in the competition in the final at Twickenham on May 19, making him eligible for an elite award.

Not only that, but with Blair committed to leaving Edinburgh to broaden his horizons at the end of this season, it would, surely, be the ideal sign-off having made his Capital Euro debut back in October 2002 in a 27-17 win over Newport at Meadowbank.

“Reaching the final would be a fabulous way to finish at Edinburgh but I would not reflect on that until I have handed all my club kit away and officially left,” he said.

Ironically, Blair pondered new pastures before signing a contract extension a couple of years ago and Ulster was one of the clubs who competed for skills that earned him a tour of South Africa with the Lions in 2009.

“A couple of years ago, I did nearly join Ulster and I remember they said at the time their main aim was to win the European Cup within – I can’t remember the exact time-scale – but it was a two- or three-year schedule.

“Having heard Ulster make that commitment there is more pressure on them and with Clermont Auvergne and Leinster in the other semi we are certainly dark horses who have crept up under the radar.

“They have a good record against us after a spell when we had a good record against them. I imagine they will be delighted to have drawn us but, hopefully, they will under-estimate what we can do.”

In fact, Blair was part of the Edinburgh team that defeated Ulster 17-13 at Murrayfield in the 2009-10 sectional Euro campaign so there is recent success to draw upon despite the fact four of the last five league encounters have been lost.

Conversely, if Edinburgh were to lose, does Blair buy into the sporting maxim that nobody remembers the losing semi-finalist in a cup competition?

“No Scottish team has ever got to a European semi-final so I think we will be remembered for getting this far no matter what.”

Blair, who has missed the last three encounters between the teams either through injury or Six Nations duties then joked: “I’d like to think the club had been keeping me back for just such an occasion as this having known all along we were going to be in the 2011-12 semi-final!”