Former Scotland rugby captain and scrum half Mike Blair, who has just announced his retirement from internationals, will be remembered for his fine all-round footballing ability, an eye for attacking options as well as outstanding cover defence.
That’s the view of Duncan Hodge, who was Blair’s half back partner when he burst on to the scene for Scotland against Canada in Vancouver before he had even started a match for the Edinburgh team he went on to represent up until a move to Brive at the beginning of this season.
Now 31, Blair has decided to step aside to allow time for a successor to be found before the 2015 World Cup but, according to Hodge, whoever fills the void created by an 85-cap stalwart – only Chris Paterson (109 caps) and Scott Murray (87) represented Scotland more often – will have a hard act to follow.
“As soon as Mike arrived with Scotland you could see he was going to be there for a long time,” said Hodge, adding: “In attack, Mike had a knack of scanning the pitch and finding space to put players into.
“Defensively he had such a good workrate and was prepared to put himself into situations where he would cover back and field high clearance kicks.
“Not every scrum half took on such chores and, as well as being a brave tackler, Mike had many deft touches, stemming from the fact he is also a good cricketer, tennis player and golfer.”
While Hodge is best remembered for a try which helped Scotland defeat England at a muddy Murrayfield in 2000, one of the 14 occasions Blair captained Scotland saw his name subsequently engraved on the Calcutta Cup after a 15-9 victory in the 2008 instalment.
However, as he later told the Evening News, Blair was made to sweat, having been withdrawn for an impact player with five minutes remaining.
“I find it hard to watch the closing moments of a game, especially with the team one score away from potentially losing. Going off to an empty dressing-room to watch on television is not something I have done before.
“It is a funny feeling knowing you can’t do anything about the situation when you are off the pitch and the empty dressing-room seemed the best option.
“I might have been on my own but I was quite happy with the way the game was closed out and, as soon as the final whistle sounded, I was back down the tunnel with a smile on my face running into [coach] Frank Hadden first of all,” he said.
It wasn’t the only occasion in which Mike Blair claimed a place in the historic annals of the Scottish game.
This product of the Accies and Boroughmuir clubs, from where he had initially to see off the challenge of talented Glasgow Hawks scrum half Kenny Sinclair for a contract, remains the only Scot to so far have been nominated for the International Player of the Year award in 2008.
On that occasion, Mike lost out to Welsh winger Shane Williams on a distinguished shortlist that also included All Blacks stand off Dan Carter as well as No. 8s Sergio Parisse (Italy) and Ryan Jones (Wales).
More intriguingly, Blair’s first start for Edinburgh came alongside Hodge as a fellow internationalist when Ulster were defeated 19-18 in Belfast in 2002, the debut call having come off the bench a year earlier in a 27-20 win over Caerphilly at Myreside.
“Up until then, I had been mostly partnering Graeme Burns, who represented Scotland as well as Edinburgh at scrum half and Mike was immediately identified as a keen challenger for the starting spot,” said Hodge.
The unusual circumstances of his breakthrough to the Test arena clearly did Blair no harm and, in joining an elite group who have played to that level over a decade, he added to a line of Scottish scrum halves who have toured with the Lions when he travelled to South Africa in 2009. Among that number are Dougie Morgan, Chris Cusiter, Andy Nicol, Roy Laidlaw and Gary Armstrong, likewise all former Scotland captains in the No. 9 shirt.
Armstrong said today: “It always struck me that Mike was at his best behind as dominant pack. Mike had a particularly good break and that was best seen when the pack were going forward.”
Armstrong believes that Blair’s departure will mean it is time for Greig Laidlaw to return to scrum half after an extended run in the stand off position.
“I’d start Greig at scrum half for Scotland in the RBS Six Nations next month with Henry Pyrgos on the bench as he has struck me as pretty gritty and determined,” says Armstrong.
Glasgow’s Pyrgos usurped Blair for the final match of the EMC Autumn Test series, substituting him against South Africa for a try-scoring debut.
Rory Lawson, of Newcastle, also returned to the scene for the concluding fixture against Tonga and, although Scotland hardly distinguished themselves with a defeat that dropped then to No.12 in the world rankings, the writing might have been on the wall for Blair’s Test career at that point ... except that the appointment of new interim coach Scott Johnson could have meant everyone starting with a clean slate although, evidently, Blair feels it is appropriate to exercise his prerogative and move on.
“For me it is important that Chris Cusiter returns to fitness soon because I like the way he has always been willing to get involved whatever is thrown at him,” added Armstrong.
Family value was factor in calling time
Mike Blair admits his family circumstances played a
major role in his decision to
retire from international rugby.
Blair departs as his country’s most-capped scrum-half with 85 caps, 14 of them as captain. The 31-year-old, who left
Edinburgh Rugby last summer to sign for French outfit Brive, admitted: “There’s no doubt that moving our family to France has played a part in my decision.
“Our son Rory is now at school here and we have an 11-week-old daughter, Lucy, who was born in Brive.
“However, it’s a combination of reasons that’s led to
my standing down from
international rugby, not just one factor.
“For me, a place in the squad at the Rugby World Cup in 2015 is not a realistic personal target and, with that in mind, it’s right for Scottish rugby and the Scotland team, that other players gain experience in a pivotal position.”
Blair was a regular for Scotland last year and captained the team for the final time in June in the victory over Samoa.
He added: “The fact that I still feel attuned to playing at international level has made the
decision harder but it’s not been reached lightly and I’m very confident that it’s the right decision. I have enjoyed immensely representing my country for more than ten years and will miss that exhilarating feeling of running out to a capacity crowd with the whole country behind you.
“The noise when leading the team out for the first time as captain at Murrayfield against England in 2008, when we won 15-9, still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up when I think about it.
“I want to thank everyone – my family, the Scotland management teams past and present, my team-mates and our supporters – for their enormous contribution to my international career.
“I have been very fortunate
to have these people around me.”
Scotland’s interim head coach Scott Johnson said: “I really enjoyed working with Mike during the summer tour and the more recent autumn Tests.
“There’s no doubt he’s a quality international rugby player and a quality bloke.
“I respect and understand his decision to retire from the international game now and, on behalf of all Scotland fans, thank him for his years of dedication to the