Blair Kinghorn’s raw talent alone is worthy of the starting Scotland team in Dublin now the 21-year-old has rid his game of raw mistakes, believes head coach Gregor Townsend.
The 21-year-old from Edinburgh is a rare physical specimen – 6 foot 5 and 15 stone, but fast – and that seems to have got him the nod for Dublin for his first start against the predictable Irish aerial bombardment in the absence of the injured Tommy Seymour.
Despite the public assurances that Seymour was running freely and would be okay, Townsend said yesterday that “time had run out” on his back injury, forcing the only change to what would have been a simple rubber-stamp of the Calcutta Cup heroes. Kinghorn was told just an hour before the team announcement that he would follow up his 15 minutes of a first cap against England with a start in the Aviva Stadium.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said, having had just enough time to text his parents. “I’m really, really excited for the weekend. I can’t wait to get out there and hopefully it is a good game for us.”
Just three years ago almost to the week Kinghorn was man of the match for Scotland Schools against their Irish counterparts. His size and speed – he was a sweeper/centre back in the Hearts Academy but doesn’t seem to have been considered for the pack in rugby, oddly – have earmarked him as coming talent, but basic errors in his first two seasons at Edinburgh seemed to have slowed his progress.
However the influence of Richard Cockerill, Duncan Hodge and Calum MacRae at Edinburgh on the youngster has been all too evident this season. Kinghorn leads the Guinness PRO14 in metres gained – despite missing the last three games as he’s been with Scotland – has scored four tries with five assists, all while playing a vastly improved defensive game.
“Probably he has matured is by making mistakes, and realising that it’s not going to get him too far in his rugby career,” said Townsend. “You need to go through that.
“The first two months of the year, he was outstanding, then he did have a few games where he made errors or lost his focus but in the last two or three months, he’s been back to even better form.
“He came on in a huge game for his first cap two weeks ago and made seven or eight tackles in a short period of time, looked confident, looked aggressive. And we expect him to have the same mind set from the start this weekend.”
Kinghorn has been part of Townsend’s thoughts for much of the season, barely missing out on the squad in November, before his call-up in the Six Nations. However Scotland have a pretty decent full-back already, and the talks were always about playing on the wing.
“I gave him feedback about November, but also about what we like about his game, work rate off the ball, confidence taking the ball to the opposition and his improved defence,” continued Townsend.
“Blair’s obviously a very good fullback in his own right, but we have one of the best fullbacks in the world – if not the best fullback in the world – playing for us.
“If he’s challenging Stuart (Hogg) then that means he’s up there with the best in the world. But, with his pace and his rugby ability, moving to the wing gives us another option in that position.”
The decision was eased with Byron McGuigan not quite ready to return and Lee Jones, although he comes on to the bench, doesn’t quite have the same physical presence to go up against Ireland’s big youngster Jacob Stockdale and as Ireland put up their usual quota of box kicks.
“We just feel the balance of what we might expect from Ireland, along with the potential weather conditions, means having that extra fullback in the back three is better for us this week,” continued Townsend.
“There’s a lot of kicks from (Conor) Murray (aimed at) the winger or the 15. We have to deal with the ball in the air and try to get as many poor kicks from Ireland as possible.”
Kinghorn’s first cap was in front of four times as large a crowd as he’d experienced before, but it was a pretty good feeling to beat England first time up.
“It was good to get out there and play in front of that many people, and get a feel for what it is like at Test level,” he said. “It was a bit of a whirlwind, I can’t really remember much of it, but it was a brilliant game to get my debut.”
Ireland away is going to be a tougher experience, but he believes it is his self-confidence that has been the change in his game this year.
“I’ve worked on basic skills, but I feel like I always back myself now as if you ever doubt yourself that’s when you make mistakes,” he said.
“If I feel it’s the right decision I put everything into it. It’s just working on those skills under pressure and I’ve been working quite closely with Duncan Hodge, making sure I can execute under pressure.”
Despite all the experienced hands called up, the Scots have made only one other alteration to Kinghorn’s ascent to the starting team and Jones on the bench, with Fraser Brown returning to back up Stuart McInally at hooker.
Scotland team: Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors); Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh Rugby), Huw Jones, Pete Horne (both Glasgow Warriors), Sean Maitland (Saracens); Finn Russell (Glasgow Warriors), Greig Laidlaw (ASM Clermont-Auvergne); Gordon Reid (London Irish), Stuart McInally, Simon Berghan; Grant Gilchrist (all Edinburgh), Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors); John Barclay (Scarlets, captain), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh Rugby), Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors).
Replacements: Fraser Brown, Jamie Bhatti (both Glasgow Warriors), WP Nel (Edinburgh Rugby), Tom Swinson (Glasgow Warriors), David Denton (Worcester Warriors), Ali Price, Nick Grigg, Lee Jones (all Glasgow Warriors).