Grant Fox and John Hart are leading tributes to Jim Blair, the Scottish-born fitness guru who transformed the art of training to help sculpt some of New Zealand's finest rugby teams.
Blair died aged 85 on the Gold Coast last week after a battle with dementia. His passing drew little recognition but the Glaswegian who departed Scotland in 1962 to find a home in Auckland left a lasting impression on many greats of the New Zealand game, some of whom describe him as a pioneer.
In the 1980s Alex Wyllie first brought Blair into the rugby fold with Canterbury but it wasn't long before Hart caught wind of his influence and convinced him to jump ship to Auckland.
Hart says Blair helped lay the foundations for the dominant Auckland teams of the 1980s which captured 11 of 15 national provincial championships from 1982 until 1996, and savoured Ranfurly Shield success that spanned nine years and 61 defences, a feat no other side has threatened in the 113-year history of the Log o' Wood.
"He totally changed the dimension of training and preparation," Hart said.
"I give him a lot of credit for the change we managed to take with the Auckland team in the '80s because he introduced a total different approach to skills, fitness and targeted in terms of individuals."
It now seems obvious in the age of smothering professionalism but in the amateur era of basic Tuesday-Thursday training sessions and no gym work, Blair introduced grids where players criss-crossed and passed the ball at high speeds to the Canterbury, Auckland and 1987 World Cup-winning All Blacks team, which featured 14 Auckland players in the 25-man squad.
Blair's approach to fitness and skill work sought to minimise time and space and improve reactions under pressure.
"I still remember the first training when we did the first grid. Gary Whetton and Joe Stanley collided and one of them got knocked out," Hart chuckles. "It was a totally new level of training and that intensity that we developed through his skill training changed the way we were able to play the game.
"He had these skill grids that ensured forwards and backs handled and passed under pressure all at the same level. It was that transition which was a major factor in the Auckland team going to Europe in '84 and coming back to dominate the game. I give him a lot of credit for what he brought to us in terms of changing the way we thought, trained and prepared.
"He was a very special contributor. Underrated and understated, but someone I have always said was very important to changing the game here. I cannot laud him enough."
Blair was ahead of his time in introducing spatial awareness aligned with skills; peripheral vision and plyometric work which improved acceleration, footwork, catching and passing.
Fox recalls Blair barking his favourite "shit off a shiny shovel" catchphrase to urge players to move faster.
"It was one of the things he used to say when he was demanding of us. We've all heard that saying because he used it often enough," Fox said.
"Jim was a pioneer in terms of training rugby athletes. He broke away from the norm and introduced a different way. He was a big part of setting the platform for the Auckland success that followed for much of the '80s.
"For me it took an average athlete who wasn't quick, big or elusive ... he didn't transform me into super athlete but he improved what I had. It didn't matter what jersey number you wore everyone was doing it.
"As much as Andy Haden and Hart were a big part of starting something in the early '80s, Jim gave us another dimension."
There was also the irony of a fitness trainer who loved cigarettes and Glenfiddich whisky.
"Here's the guy that was the guru for us but socially he'd have a fag, more than few, and he didn't mind whisky. We used to chuckle about that. For all of that, he was in good shape. Despite the vices he had, which we've all got, he hardly had an ounce of fat on him."
Outside rugby Blair worked as the fitness director at the then Institute of Sport and Corporate Health in Auckland where he trained New Zealand crews in America's Cup and Admiral's Cup yachting, among other athletes.
When Covid-19 travel restrictions allow, Blair's family plan to lay him to rest in New Zealand which he grew to consider home.