Blair steps out of Cusiter's shadow to realise dream

The Scotland scrum-half tells Grant McRae about the dogged determination and change of coach which helped him to lay claim to the coveted No 9 shirt
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Mike Blair is too amiable an individual and much too neat a footballer to be considered part of the great terrier tradition of Scottish scrum-halves, but in one sense he might yet come to be seen as the most tenacious of the lot. For however friendly and self-effacing he may seem on the surface, his manner masks a fierce competitor whose place in the Scotland side is a tribute to his refusal to give up.

Or rather to his refusal to let go of the dream he nurtured through his childhood when he accompanied his father to Murrayfield to watch the Scotland side of Gavin Hastings, David Sole and Finlay Calder. That was the team that enthralled the Scottish nation with their Grand Slam win over England in 1990 - and the team that cemented in the then eight-year-old Blair the conviction that he, too, would represent his country one day.

In strict terms, that ambition was fulfilled when he made a try-scoring debut against Canada during Scotland's 2002 tour of North America. Of course, the No 9 jersey he wore then would remain a loan item so long as Bryan Redpath was on the scene, but when Redpath confirmed his intention to retire after the 2003 World Cup Blair was not alone in assuming it would soon become his on a permanent basis.

Then fate made a cruel intervention. In quick succession, Matt Williams was appointed Scotland coach and the previously unknown Chris Cusiter began to make waves with his performances for the Borders. For his first game in charge, against Wales in the 2004 Six Nations, Williams picked Cusiter ahead of Blair, a pecking order he stuck with until his sacking last year. Blair added 14 caps to his collection, but every one of them was as a replacement for his younger rival.

That Williams was so rigid in his thinking made it all the harder to accept. "He told me about six weeks before the Welsh game that I wouldn't be starting," Blair says. "I don't think that season's Heineken Cup had even started then, so we still had a lot of hard games to play, but he told me then that I wouldn't be getting the opportunity. It was pretty tough to take at that stage.

"I got into this mindset that it didn't matter too much what I did, I wasn't going to be starting the game, which was quite a negative outlook. When I was playing for Edinburgh I was playing about as well as I could and I felt I had done OK with Scotland, given the opportunities I had, but maybe it was that more dogged style he wanted."

In fairness, while many Scotland supporters questioned the judgement at the outset, Cusiter's excellence over the next couple of seasons seemed to justify his elevation. Outstanding in a period of adversity for Scotland, Cusiter was one of only three Scots included in the original Lions squad selected to tour New Zealand last summer, and he emerged from that ill-fated venture with his reputation greatly enhanced.

Yet as so often happens after such a tour, Cusiter's form dipped at the start of this season, while Blair kicked off the new campaign with a succession of inspired performances for Edinburgh. Frank Hadden, the newly appointed Scotland coach, duly named him ahead of Cusiter for the first of the autumn Tests, against Argentina. Cusiter returned for the Samoa and New Zealand games, but Blair had his nose back in front in time for the Six Nations.

Does Cusiter's role mean a stressful life for Blair? "I don't think so," he shrugs. "There's definitely a pressure there but I don't think it's greater than in any other position. If you have a poor game, then you know you'll struggle to stay in the team and if you have a good game, then you'll hope to keep your position. That's pretty much the same for everyone."

Scotland's victory over France on the championship's opening weekend was a vindication of Hadden's methods and a fillip for players whose resentment of Williams' more authoritarian style had brought them close to open rebellion. And even if defeat in Wales a fortnight ago brought them back to earth and killed off some insanely premature talk of a Grand Slam, Blair knows how important Hadden's more positive and encouraging approach has had on the side.

"You can't overstate how important confidence is to a team," he said. "Winning breeds confidence. When you feel comfortable in what you're doing on the pitch and that you belong there as opposed to being the whipping boys, then you start to feel on a par with your opponents."

If England's success this year comes down to a return to a traditional emphasis on tight forward play, Scotland's resurgence owes as much to an equally characteristic fondness for fast ball and disruptive running in the loose. In that regard, Blair might be seen as the Scots' most significant player, for his game is built around his own speed off the mark and his inventive link play. The bookies might have England as clear favourites, but the odds will narrow considerably if Blair is at his best.