THE LAST time Ashley Blair was involved in All Ireland rugby was May 2001. He was lifting the All Ireland League Division One crown with Dungannon.
Michael Wilson reports
The former Ulster scrum-half remains Dungannon’s record points score in AIL competition, one place ahead of a certain David Humphries. Those are the credentials of City of Derry’s new assistant Head Coach.
Blair had been out of coaching for two years when Mark Nicholl approached him about and Blair, who was part of the Armagh set-up with which Derry enjoyed some titanic battles en route out of the Ulster Junior League - was only too happy to take up the post.
“I had been out of coaching for a couple of years while I was developing my business but I knew Derry well from my time with Armagh in the Junior League,” explains Blair, “We had some very close games at that time, I don’t know, maybe that’s why Mark had me in mind for the position. Even after Derry went up I followed their progress and it has been excellent.
“The only real consideration I had when Mark approached me was the distance I would have to travel but I have made the journey as relaxing as possible and it has not been too bad.”
Based in Dungannon from where he runs his ‘AB’s Health, Diet and Fitness’ business, Blair makes the 140-mile round trip every Thursday evening and says he has been impressed with what he found at Judges Road.
“Have I been surprised? No, I haven’t been surprised but getting a closer look at the Derry players I have certainly been impressed by the level of skills at the club. I like keeping the ball alive and players being able to beat a man and I have been very impressed at the number of players with that ability at the club.
“The key though is to find the balance about when to use that ability. We have to help the players find that balance between using the natural skills and playing within the team plan.
“The key is to challenge the players, empower them to make that decision at the right time but at the end of the day if you want to play a certain style of rugby you have to have the players to do it. You have to play the style of rugby to suit the players you have.
“I think that attacking brand of rugby Derry have developed has come from their time in the Junior league but the problem there was Armagh were Derry’s only real challenge. Yes, you can throw the ball about against teams and win 60-0 but that is not always enjoyable when there is no real challenge.”
Having reached the pinnacle of the domestic game as a player, Blair says it is important the players retain their focus because they will get nothing easy from U.C.C.
“I am looking forward to Saturday but this is only the first game so no-one will be getting carried away. We can be quietly confident because of our performances but the players have to apply themselves and make the right decisions on the day. We have worked hard but the AIL is a level up from what we have been doing so far. Experience is the key but the things is you only get experience from experience. I suppose if I bring anything I am a winner and have played on a team that was used to winning.