Mike Blair | Nine of the Times
Scotland’s most-capped scrum-half, Mike Blair, represented his country 85 times between 2002 and 2012, playing at three Rugby World Cups and gaining selection for the 2009 British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa.
A stellar career saw him captain his country on fourteen occasions, score seven international tries and gain a nomination for IRB World Player of the Year in 2008.
After retiring from the game in 2016, he became Assistant Coach at Glasgow Warriors before taking on a similar role with Scotland, under Gregor Townsend.
We caught up with him to discuss some of the heady names he faced on Scotland duty and what they offered as opponents over his decade in international rugby.
GARY ARMSTRONG (SCOTLAND)
“The player that really influenced me from that sort of era was Gary Armstrong. When I was growing up, he was my sort of Stuart Hogg I guess, in terms of who I wanted to be. I remember in primary school, sitting at the front of the class legs crossed and we got asked what position we wanted to play and because my Dad had played scrum-half for Edinburgh Accies I thought ‘yeah I’ll try that’ and it started from there.
“And so when Gary Armstrong was really at the peak of his powers, that’s when I really took inspiration. I actually played against him a few times when I was breaking through at Edinburgh and he’d come back to the Border Reivers after playing for Newcastle. I remember there was a photo call at Murrayfield where they wanted to have the pair of us standing nose-to-nose, just staring at one another.
“It was really awkward because we weren’t chatting yet we couldn’t have been any closer. But it was great fine playing against him and I’m pretty sure I took a few sly digs in the ribs at the breakdown as a welcome from him!”
JOOST VAN DER WESTHUIZEN (SOUTH AFRICA)
“I came off the bench in 2003 before the World Cup that year, and I can’t remember if he was still on at the time but he was one of the eye-catching names.
“The ages when I was most influenced by rugby, at nine to 17, the players from that era were the ones who inspired me to play. I’d watched Living with The Lions in 97 and kind of liked him because his passing wasn’t particularly good and I always liked the fact that he was a world class scrum-half who couldn’t really pass, so it gave hope to those in the same boat!”
MATT DAWSON (ENGLAND)
“Street smart is a good description for Matt. If you look at the individual components of his game, he probably wasn’t amazing at any one thing, but he used game management to his advantage. He was a world class player without having some of those stand-out traits, if that makes sense.
“I remember running as opposition once for Scotland and myself, Nathan Hines and Gordon Ross and the drill was called the Stop Matt Dawson drill, all about how to defend him at the breakdown. So I had to try and mimic Matt as best I could – it was actually one of the best sessions I ever had – and we ended up making three line breaks against seven defenders within the first few plays.
“He was coming towards the end of his career when I faced him and although he wasn’t quite at the 2003 levels he’d reached, he was still such a canny player.”
“Dwayne Peel was class, very different to say the abrasive Mike Phillips, but I rated the pair of them highly. Peel was just a natural while Phillips used what he was good at physically. I was on that Lions tour in 2009 with Phillips and Harry Ellis and they both played well enough for me to not get a look-in for a Test cap, although I didn’t play well on that tour and only had myself to blame for that.
The two French ones that stand out would be Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, who played a similar type of game to me, bringing others into the game at first receiver as well, and Dimitri Yachvili, who I think had the best attacking short kicking game of anyone in the past 20 years.
“And Chris Cusiter was someone I never enjoyed playing against. He was a real try-hard and constantly there, in your face, annoying you – in a nice way, of course, because it was Cus. We both had times of being first choice for Scotland over the years and dovetailed well over the years.
SCOTLAND’S SCRUM-HALF STABLE
“I think Ali in particular got a lot of confidence from Greig not being there. Before, when he had started ahead of Greig, Ali would have been looking over his shoulder a bit and it’s maybe similar now with him and George Horne.
“Greig was a big leader of that squad and through him no longer being a part of that, both Ali and George will have to develop that side of their game as well as compete for the jersey. They will have learned a huge deal from Greig though and will no doubt use some of the things they picked up from him.
“Ali’s done really well in being picked throughout the 2020 Six Nations and George is snapping at his heels, so that’s great from a Scotland point of view.”