Scottish Rugby
Blair to the rescue?
Iain Morrison
September 21, 2010

Scottish rugby is a small, not altogether close knit, family where almost everyone knows everyone else, certainly in the professional game. Given the limited gene pool it's hardly surprising that brothers have always had an extended influence on events; from the Calders, Jim and Finlay, to the Hastings, Gavin and Scott and back to Peter and Gordon Brown.

There is a famous story about Gordon telling his delighted brother Peter (known universally as "P.C.") that he had been selected in the Scotland team to play at the weekend. "Instead of who?" PC enquired. "You!" came the response.

In recent years brothers have had a bigger influence on Scotland's fortunes than ever before. When Sean Lamont and Thom Evans first arrived at Glasgow some years back they both insisted that they had brothers who were better than they were...Rory Lamont, currently with Toulon in France, and Max, sadly for Scotland the only Evans still in operation.

But they are not alone because Edinburgh centre Alex Grove (on loan from Worcester Warriors until at least January) also has a younger brother, Ollie, who played Scotland Under-20 rugby last season. Ollie is currently filling the No.13 shirt for Birmingham and Solihull in England's Championship and, presuming Alex returns to Worcester this season, the two brothers could go head to head in 2011.

But there is something else that ties these three pairs of brothers together...they were all brought up in English rugby. In fact it is possible, with the addition of Simon Danielli and Hugo Southwell, to imagine a Scottish backline that has "Made In England" stamped on its collective backside, such is the predominance of exiles in the national squad.

What happened to Scottish back play? The country that produced Jim Renwick and Ken Scotland, Andy Irvine and John Rutherford, not to mention Ian McGeechan, no mean player long before gaining fame as a coach, suddenly seems to have run out of ideas.

GPS MacPherson was the greatest of the lot, at least according to a 2001 poll that nominated him Scotland's best attacking back. He was elusive, electric over short distances and brilliant in tandem with winger Ian Smith. The pair of them scored 29 tries in just 17 matches together, with McPherson usually acting as the creator for Smith's finishing.

The current Scottish attack is toothless, both at international and pro-team level. The forwards win the ball and the backs run into brick walls or up blind alleys until someone makes a mistake. The only player who has the happy knack of scoring tries is Edinburgh winger Tim Visser, he was top scorer in the Magners last time out and he's started like a rocket this season, but if he's a Scot then I'm a Dutchman. Over the last ten Test matches Scotland have managed no more than six tries, with just two of them going to backs. It's not a statistic that will have Mils Muliaina quaking in his boots when the All Blacks turn up to Murrayfield on November 13.

All of which makes the emergence of another brother all the more important to Scottish rugby. Alex is the youngest of the Blair brothers (his siblings include Scotland scrum-half Mike and Edinburgh stand-off David) and is outrageously talented. Not since Gregor Townsend emerged from Gala almost seventeen years ago has a young back, and this one was born and bred in Scotland, arrived on the scene with such expectation weighing on his shoulders.

That is something of a surprise because Alex is so far from the finished product that no one can be sure what he will eventually end up as; a cultured fly-half, a livewire thirteen or even a fullback. No one seems to agree on his best position. He kicks poorly but he has pace to burn, his game management is woeful but he can spot a gap before it opens up, he steps well but he misses tackles and so on and so on.

The only thing that everyone agrees upon is that Alex Blair has something special. He is genuinely quick, especially over the all important first thirty, and he has the beating of a man one on one, a talent that puts him in a very exclusive minority in Scottish rugby.

It may be the miserable weather up here, our club matches kicked off two weeks before the professionals in an attempt to get the last of the summer sun, or it may be down to risk-averse coaching at junior level but something is badly wrong with the state of Scottish back play.

Will the youngest Blair, another one of the country's "band of brothers", be the answer to all of Scotland's woes? Well, no, obviously, at least not on his own, but there are a lot of fans and followers monitoring Alex Blair's progress very closely - if only to reassure themselves that the spirit of GPS MacPherson is not lost forever.

Iain Morrison won 15 caps for Scotland between 1993 and 1995 and is the rugby correspondent for The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday newspapers

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