Mike BLAIR believes Scotland’s prospects of a successful rugby World Cup could hinge partly on the fact the tournament is being played on the other side of the world.
As he prepares to stake a claim for a place in the final 30-strong party that will be named on Monday after today’s concluding EMC warm-up Test against Italy at Murrayfield, the scrum-half made crystal clear he was referring to the more streamlined structure of the latest competition and implied absolutely no criticism of home support.
But he admitted that the 2007 tournament, which had seen Scotland shift between France and Edinburgh for matches, meant continuity of preparations was inevitably disrupted.
This time the Scots will hold an initial training camp on Australia’s Gold Coast before crossing the Tasman Sea to host nation New Zealand for the entire duration.
Drawing on experience of the 2003 World Cup held entirely in Australia where he understudied Scotland captain Bryan Redpath and made only one appearance, against the USA, Blair, nevertheless, remarked: “I don’t know whether being away all the time works to our advantage because that’s the way it is for everybody [except New Zealand].
“But in 2003 in Australia it was brilliant fun building up a camaraderie within the squad. That’s something you can take on to the pitch.
“The 2007 World Cup was strange. We came home in the middle [after opening against Portugal] to play Romania and New Zealand before returning to France [for the final pool match and quarter-final].
“In those circumstances, it felt more like a Six Nations tournament where you are at home for one, or two games, and also playing away.
“For six weeks in New Zealand we will be together as a squad all the time.”
During the previous tournament Blair started in four of Scotland’s five matches, always alongside Dan Parks.
It is a combination that has started 16 times for Scotland with almost as many cameo appearances side-by-side from off the substitutes bench.
With both players claiming more than 50 caps, it is a half back combination rich in experience which can perhaps prove the lynchpin of Scottish success today.
“I’m certainly used to partnering Dan and we know each other’s games really well besides having played against each other a good few times,” says Blair.
The pair first started a match together in 2005 in what was previous coach Frank Hadden’s international coaching debut away to Romania.
Blair adds: “I feel there is a good rapport between Dan and myself and hopefully we can add something to the team.”
As an experienced campaigner who has twice made it through final World Cup selection, Blair also knows a bit about handling an occasion like today’s against Italy when so many hopes go on the line. The key, he says, is to think in the present at all times.
“Somewhere in the back of everybody’s minds will be the World Cup.
“But I can honestly say I haven’t thought about any ramifications attached to playing Italy this time” he adds.
Hampered by a foot injury until the later stages of the build-up when the good guidance of the medics paid off to ensure he now feels at concert pitch, the Edinburgh stalwart says: “I have not played for three and a half months and a lot of other guys are in the same boat.
“For that reason I’m just looking forward to playing again above all else.”
It will be a third trip to New Zealand with Blair having toured with the Scottish under-18s and made a whistle-stop visit when Scotland broke an Australia tour to play Samoa in Wellington in 2004.
This time could be different due to weather conditions but, in a tongue-in-cheek reference to preparations, as described on Facebook by former Edinburgh and Scotland colleague Matt Mustchin now based back in his native New Zealand, Blair revealed: “Matt is currently highlighting the amount of snow that is falling in parts of New Zealand.
“It was good move, then, that Scotland had the foresight to take our game against Samoa to Aberdeen last winter!”