Scotland assistant coach Mike Blair believes the progress of both Edinburgh and Glasgow in the Heineken Champions Cup can only have a positive effect on the country’s Six Nations chances.
The national squad have gathered once again at the Heriot-Watt Oriam training base in the west of the capital buoyed by the historic achievement of both the pro teams qualifying for the knock-out stages of Europe’s elite club competition.
Former Scotland scrum-half and skipper Blair, who played for Edinburgh between 2002 and 2012 and now combines his national skills coach role with Glasgow, where he ended his playing career, revealed it was a happy camp that started preparing for the Six Nations, which begins at home to Italy on February 2.
“The knock-on effect that’s got for the guys coming into camp, the smiles on faces, the bounce in the step, for Scottish rugby as a whole it’s a huge thing,” he said following a weekend when Edinburgh’s 19-10 win over Montpellier at BT Murrayfield also ensured Glasgow went through to the last eight before their loss at Saracens.
“It’s historical. But also I think you see that with the Glasgow and Edinburgh players, they don’t want to see that as the end of the run for them. They want to push for bigger things, getting to the semi-finals, getting to the final.”
Blair agreed such progress could only bring benefits to the Scotland team.
“Definitely,” he said. “Edinburgh and Glasgow have varying styles so with Scotland we’re in a great situation that we can pull a bit from each team and try to find that perfect blend of play that suits our players.
“There’s definitely some confidence in the group but it’s also a mature group, not necessarily in terms of age or caps or whatever, but these guys understand what is required to win at the highest level.”
Blair was a member of the last Edinburgh team to reach the knockout stages of Europe’s premier competition, when they reached the Heineken Cup semi-finals in 2012, and he said he was delighted to see his home city club back mixing it with the best.
“There’s been a great resurgence hasn’t there? They’ve had some good players over the years but there seems to be a great bond within the squad at the moment, an understanding of what their strengths are and how they can play to it,” said the man who won 85 caps for his country and toured with the British and Irish Lions in 2009.
“I think the games against Toulon and Montpellier showed that Edinburgh have the control in the forwards but some flair in the backs as well. They’re playing some great stuff at the moment.
“I think what Edinburgh have done well is picked a style that suits their players. Maybe previously, coaches have had a certain style in mind that didn’t necessarily suit the players they’ve got.
“One of Edinburgh’s obvious strength is the front five, along with the set-piece work and the kick chase. That’s something that is up there with the very best in Europe. They’ve built their game on that.
“And they’re adding a lot of different layers to their game now. Their defence has been excellent with Calum MacRae there [as defence coach]. And with [attack coach] Duncan Hodge, you could see that attacking flair in the Montpellier game.
“So I guess they’ve built a base on the kicking game and defence – but you can see a lot more coming from their game now. It’s an exciting time to be an Edinburgh supporter.”
Blair said decisions would be made on which players are released to the clubs for the weekend’s Guinness Pro14 games. Edinburgh are already in South Africa for the clash with Southern Kings but some could be dispatched to Port Elizabeth today, while Glasgow are at home to Ospreys.
“There’ll be a balance in guys going back to their clubs and guys not,” said the assistant coach. “There is a blend. Some positions we might want to protect a little bit, but some guys need a little bit of rugby, so there’ll be a mix and match.”
While Hamish Watson is definitely out of the first two Six Nations games at home to Italy and Ireland, Blair was more upbeat about lock Jonny Gray’s shoulder injury.
“We believe it’s something that’s manageable,” he said. “He was just struggling in a couple of collisions and stuff in the game on Saturday and felt he wasn’t able to play right at the top of his game.”
Casting his thoughts forward to that opener against Italy two weeks on Saturday, Blair expressed confidence that Scotland’s fitness levels could be a telling factor in getting the campaign off to a winning start.
“Historically that would be an area you target with them,” he said. “They have had improvement with Treviso and Zebre and the management team they’ve got in place have put a lot more focus on that, but they have struggled a little in those last 20 minutes as well.
“It’s an area that we pride ourselves on, our fitness and being able to move teams around, but whoever we’re playing we’ll look at those last 20 minutes as an area to target.”