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Blair believes he can bridge gap and hit ground running

It's not so long since Mike Blair was being accused of lacking ambition, of setting his sights too low.

 Mike Blair relaxes in the Old Course Hotel in St Andrews
Mike Blair relaxes in the Old Course Hotel in St Andrews

The scrum-half had spent his entire life in Edinburgh, and his entire professional career on the books of the capital city's club. Rumour had it that he went down with a fit of the vapours if he so much as crossed the Forth.

Then, out of nowhere, came the announcement that Blair would be leaving Edinburgh and heading for pastures new. A short time later it was confirmed that those pastures were in the Correze region of south-west France, where he had signed a deal with Brive. Even by the standards of French rugby, it was a challenging choice: a place where the sport is followed with a febrile passion and where the supporters are among the most demanding in the country.

Blair was following in the footsteps of Gregor Townsend – or "Gregor Townsie" as Blair reports the Glasgow coach is remembered by Brive fans – and Tom Smith. The club were considered European giants in the Townsend/Smith era, having won the Heineken Cup in 1997, but their stock had fallen badly in the intervening years and had slipped into the Pro D2, the second division of French rugby. Blair might have developed wanderlust, but had his sense of ambition deserted him entirely?

Far from it. Sitting down to talk in the Old Course Hotel in St Andrews, where the Scotland squad are holding their pre-November Tests training camp, it quickly becomes clear that Blair is as keen to add to his collection of 82 caps as he was when his haul was still in single figures, and with his perennial rival Chris Cusiter currently sidelined by a shoulder injury, it seems likely he will do just that when the Scots take on the All Blacks at Murrayfield on November 11.

But having dropped to a lower tier of rugby, does Blair feel he can bridge the gap and hit the ground running against a team globally recognised as the best on the planet right now – and, arguably, one of the best there has ever been?

Always the most thoughtful of players, he considers the question carefully. "There was obviously a bit of chat about Rory Lawson [who moved to newly relegated Newcastle Falcons at about the same time] and me playing in the second division," he replies. "I'm lucky in the position I play, because a lot of what you do as a scrum-half is the same whether you're playing for Scotland, the Lions or Edinburgh Accies. Your main game is your basics: kicking, distribution and organisation.

"On the whole, it's not been too bad. We had fitness testing [with Scotland] yesterday and I'm as fit as I've ever been. I'm in good shape."

Just to add to the challenge, Blair arrived in France just three months before his wife, Viv, was due to give birth. Lucy, a sister for two-year-old Rory, arrived 10 days ago, but far from feeling overwhelmed by all the changes in his life, Blair seems almost energised by them, even to the point of suggesting he should have made the move earlier.

"It's living up to my hopes in terms of the reasons I did it," he says. "It's such a change to what I was used to at Edinburgh, both in terms of lifestyle and rugby. We're living in a small village that is relatively remote, even though it's only 10 minutes from the town centre. We've got cows and pigs all around us. It's been fantastic and we've settled in really well.

"I do think back. I had the opportunity to go to France four or five years ago. I wonder how things would have turned out if I had done it that way round."

Blair had little more than schoolboy French when he arrived, but his language skills are improving every day. Not quite at the rate of young Rory, though, as Blair gleefully relates a story of how his son surprised him one evening by counting up to 20 in fluent French.

All good, heartwarming stuff, but there is serious business ahead. The most senior member of the current Scotland squad, Blair has played against the All Blacks three times and believes that his team-mates will have to be dialled in from the very first minute if they are to have a chance of gaining a historic first win for Scotland against the New Zealanders at Murrayfield the weekend after next.

"One of the key things you look at is the start," he says. "When we played in 2010, I think they scored three tries in the first 15 minutes and we were 21-0 down. In 2008, I think we got a penalty first, but then they scored two relatively quick tries and we were 14-3 down after about 10 minutes. I think it was pretty similar in 2005, as well.

"After 15 minutes you have to be drawing or at least within touch. Once you get to that stage, you start building, and, as the game goes on, the opposition become more human. You start thinking 'hold on here, we're in this' and the belief starts to grow in you.

"Everyone is very aware of how good New Zealand are. They are comfortably the best team in the world and we have to have a belief that we can be in the game. But we are under no illusions about how hard it will be."

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