Two days before Ian McGeechan and the rest of the British and Irish Lions hierarchy were scheduled to announce their tour party for South Africa, the Edinburgh scrum-half Mike Blair was still giving himself an even-money chance of making the cut. It was a far cry from the odds-on status he had enjoyed at the start of the season, when the world and his wife considered him to be both an automatic selection and the Test No 9 in waiting, but when a Six Nations Championship goes as wrong for a team as this year's tournament did for Scotland, only the luckiest of captains emerge with reputation intact – and Blair had not been in the least bit lucky.
"I thought it was touch and go," he recalls. "Then I read that Jim Telfer had made a few comments about me. They weren't terribly positive, and as I assumed he had an inside track, I went from thinking in terms of 50-50 to thinking 'five per cent'." Telfer, a two-tour Lion in the 1960s and a growling martinet of an assistant coach to McGeechan when the Springboks were beaten in 1997, may or may not have had a decisive influence on the final choices at scrum-half, but Blair was right to fear the worst. Three half-backs were named on the morning of 21 April, and he was not among them.
Even when Tomas O'Leary, the inexperienced Irishman selected ahead of him, suffered a broken ankle while playing for Munster three days later, there was no lightening of the gloom. The Lions waited several days before announcing a replacement, with a variety of names being thrown around with the usual abandon: Danny Care of England was one, Dwayne Peel of Wales another. Even the Scots, desperate to increase their pitifully small contribution of two players to a squad of 37 (one of them, Nathan Hines, an Australian from Wagga Wagga), thought Chris Cusiter might sneak in ahead of Blair, despite having understudied him from the bench throughout the Six Nations.
"I wouldn't say I was anxious during that period," Blair says, "but I didn't know quite what was going on in my own mind. One moment, I'd be telling myself: 'Surely I'm next in line.' The next moment, it would be: 'Mike, book yourself a holiday. This isn't going to happen.' I suppose not knowing gave me the freedom to get on with playing for Edinburgh and that helped a little bit. We were on a winning streak – six straight in the Magners League – so I was at least enjoying my rugby at club level."
Finally, the news broke that Blair would be the man. "I think they made the right call," says Andy Robinson, the former England head coach who now runs the show at Edinburgh. "I was disappointed for Mike when he missed out on the original selection, not just because he's a good bloke, but because he always gives a coach something back. With some players, it can be a one-way relationship; with Mike, there is give as well as take. He's a student of the game. He watches opponents carefully, assesses them accurately and frequently comes to me with ideas about how we might deal with them. How would I describe working with him? Refreshing."
Named in the starting line-up for this afternoon's opening match with the Royal XV in Rustenburg, Blair says he first picked up a rugby ball at the age of four. It is not unusual for a future international sportsman to make an early start – Tiger Woods was going long off the tee around the time of his third birthday, when people still called him Eldrick – but a Scot might reasonably be expected to try football first. He played scrum-half right from the start and spent much of his childhood perfecting the skills peculiar to that position, although he also indulged himself musically, playing the oboe to a very decent standard while studying at Edinburgh Academy. It was no great surprise to anyone when he was selected for Scotland Schools.
Since turning professional, he has accumulated 58 caps – the first of them against Canada in Vancouver at the Thunderbird Stadium, no less – and for much of that time, there have been intimations of an upturn in Scottish fortunes at international level. Unfortunately from Blair's perspective, the waiting continues. After performing very respectably against southern hemisphere opponents last autumn, he found himself stuck in the quagmire of another fruitless Six Nations campaign and paid a heavy price.
"In each of the last two years we made very disappointing starts to the championship, and when that happens it's hard to generate momentum," he admits. "We showed excellent signs here and there, but excellent signs aren't enough. For all the frustration – and believe me, we all shared in it – I wasn't too unhappy with my own form. Certainly, I didn't feel it was as bad as some people made out. The problem is the sense of negativity that filters in from outside when results don't come right. There is often a lot of it about and it's not easy to be unaffected."
With Scottish representation so low – his late call-up, along with that of the Edinburgh hooker Ross Ford, may have doubled the tally, but it still borders on the embarrassing – does he feel added responsibility to fly the flag for his country? "There is a feeling of responsibility, yes, but I don't necessarily see it through the prism of Scottish rugby," he replies. "Everyone in world rugby will be watching what happens over the course of this tour, so there is enough responsibility on me as a player. And on everyone else, too. Putting national distinctions to one side for the time we're in South Africa is what being on this trip is all about."
The Lions have travelled with three very different half-backs, and if Blair cannot match the overt physicality of Mike Phillips, the Welshman, or the gung-ho approach of Harry Ellis, the Englishman, his wide-ranging mastery of the more traditional skills could yet win him the day. If he makes it into the Test side, he will go one better than his first rugby hero, Gary Armstrong of Jedforest, who for one reason or another never quite made it, despite touring Australia in 1989.
Robinson is among those who can see it happening. "Mike is a decision-maker, one of the best readers of a game I know," says the coach. "If he concentrates on doing the things he does well, he has a chance."Reuse content