Blair is restored but it's Laidlaw moving to No 10
Saturday 25 February 2012
Remember the clamour for Blair to be installed at No 10?
The man who lines up at scrum-half for Scotland against France at Murrayfield tomorrow certainly does. "I think if someone had said to me a year ago that the half-backs for this game would be me and Greig, you'd probably be guessing that Greig would be playing nine," Mike Blair pondered. Not so long ago, such was Scotland's dearth of talent at outside-half, and surfeit of options at scrum-half, there was a campaign for the conversion of Blair from a nine to a 10.
Instead, it is Greig Laidlaw who has made the change. The Edinburgh captain won his first cap for Scotland as a scrum-half, replacing Blair off the bench in the 49-3 defeat against the All Blacks at Murrayfield in November 2010. He also played his second game as a replacement scrum-half, in the World Cup warm-up contest against Ireland last August.
In the 2012 Six Nations opener against England, however, the nephew of the former Scotland and Lions scrum-half Roy Laidlaw came off the bench to replace Dan Parks at outside-half. He made his first international start in the fly-half position against Wales in Cardiff a fortnight ago and plays there again tomorrow – alongside Blair, whose speed of service on replacement duty has earned him the nod for the No 9 jersey, ahead of his long-time rival Chris Cusiter.
Remarkably, it is the ninth different starting half-back combination that Scotland head coach Andy Robinson has chosen in nine matches. Whether it can help the Scots kick a losing habit stretching back four matches remains to be seen but Blair's presence from the off will certainly enhance Robinson's plan of testing the World Cup finalists with a fast, multi-phase game.
Scotland have only beaten France once in 13 years. That was a 20-16 victory at Murrayfield in 2006, in which Blair showed all the rapier-sharp qualities that were to put him in the running for the IRB Player of the Year award in 2008 (he lost out to Shane Williams but remains the only Scot ever to have appeared on the shortlist for the global honour) and made him a British and Irish Lion in 2009.
"No, I didn't win the man of the match award that day," the 29-year-old said, casting his mind back to that rare Caledonian success against the French. "I think it ended up being Scott Murray. It should have been me, definitely. I went off after 55 minutes or so with a broken nose or something."
Since making a try-scoring debut against Canada in the summer of 2002, Blair has taken more than a few knocks. After being lined up as Bryan Redpath's successor under Ian McGeechan for 18 months, he was told he would be playing second fiddle to Cusiter when Matt Williams arrived as head coach after the 2003 World Cup.
For much of Robinson's tenure, he has even slipped into Harry Lime territory – as the Third Man in line for theNo 9 shirt, behind Cusiter and Rory Lawson. Indeed, of the 18 appearances Blair has made under Robinson, only four have been as a starter. And, in promoting the Edinburgh man from bench duty for what will be his 77th cap tomorrow, Robinson felt obliged to point out that Cusiter remained his "long-term No 1" scrum-half.
"I think there is that slightly different balance between Chris and myself," Blair said. "We both bring different things to the party and I'm pleased to get the opportunity this time."
What Blair and Laidlaw bring to the half-back party is a slick partnership forged in the Edinburgh team since the latter moved out to fly-half towards the end of last season. "We really enjoy playing together," Blair said. "We thrive off quick ball and I think the understanding we have together, and the way we can interchange, helps to speed up the game a little bit as well."
For Laidlaw, having been fast-tracked from scrum-half to stand-off, and become a link man with international experience in both half-back roles, he has found himself following in the footsteps of Freddie Michalak, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde and Morgan Parra, who have all played in both slots for France in recent years.
"I feel as though I'm getting in the groove now at 10," said Laidlaw. "It is a very French thing, but hopefully now I can turn it into a Scottish thing."
Teams: Scotland: Hogg; Lamont, Lamont, Morrison, Jones; Laidlaw, Blair; Jacobsen, Ford (capt), Cross, Gray, Hamilton, Barclay, Rennie, Denton. Replacements: Lawson, Kalman, Kellock, Vernon, Cusiter, Weir, De Luca.
France: Medard; Clerc, Rougerie, Fofana, Malzieu; Trinh-Duc, Parra; Poux, Szarzewski, Mas, Pape, Maestri, Dusautoir (capt), Harinordoquy, Picamoles. Replacements: Servat, Debaty, Nallet, Bonnaire, Dupuy, Beauxis, Mermoz.
Referee: W Barnes (Eng). Kick-off: 3pm tomorrow. TV: BBC2
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