Blair Kinghorn: Why now is the right time to play him at 10 for Scotland as Gregor Townsend pinpoints match which convinced him
Scotland’s Blair switch project will reach its apex in Dublin on Saturday when Kinghorn lines up at ten against Ireland in the final round of this season’s Guinness Six Nations.
The wisdom or otherwise of converting the back-three player into a stand-off will be laid bare in front of a jury of 50,000 mainly hostile spectators as the visitors seek their first win in 12 years in the Irish capital.
It will be an onerous occasion for Kinghorn, whose one previous start at fly-half in a Test match came in the lopsided victory over Tonga at Murrayfield in the autumn.
He has functioned well there for Edinburgh this season, starting eight matches in the ten jersey and finishing on the winning side on seven occasions, most recently in the impressive 56-8 victory over Connacht. But this is a huge step up for the 25-year-old who played his schoolboy rugby as a stand-off before being redeployed as a full-back and winger.
Kinghorn had brief appearances off the bench at stand-off against Wales and France but missed last weekend’s win over Italy due to personal reasons and Gregor Townsend refused to say whether he would have started him at ten in Rome had he been available.
The national coach was also reluctant to go into detail on where it had gone wrong for Finn Russell. For so long Scotland’s talisman, Russell will be on the bench in Dublin after an indifferent championship.
“I prefer to focus on what Blair has done and how well he’s played and deserved this opportunity,” said Townsend. “Which he certainly has in his performances throughout this season.”
The plan to convert Kinghorn was hatched towards the end of last season. He had a couple of games at ten for Edinburgh under Richard Cockerill’s stewardship but it was when Mike Blair replaced the Englishman in the close season that the project gathered pace.
Kinghorn had been due to play at ten for Scotland in the summer when Blair was in interim charge of the national side while Townsend was in South Africa with the Lions. Covid scuppered the plan but Blair’s accession to the Edinburgh hot-seat and the club’s subsequent change to a more open, attacking style on their new, fast artificial pitch have hastened Kinghorn’s development as playmaker.
“The move to playing there at the end of last season, when Edinburgh started opening up their game much more – that gave me the encouragement,” said Townsend.
“The game has also changed too. For me, that position is now about someone who can run with the ball and pass with the ball, rather than what it was five or ten years ago when it was more about kicking.
“Kicking now is about attacking kicks as well, putting pressure on teams. And you see the best tens in the world being able to do that, and we’re fortunate that we have more than just Blair able to do that, but Blair’s strengths are more suited to the position now.”
“We believe it’s the right time, the right time for the team and for Blair,” added Townsend. “He reminded us a couple of weeks ago of what he can do against Connacht and he came off the bench and did really well against Wales.
“Against France we were chasing the game so that wasn’t as good, but going back and playing against Connacht showed what he can do. We believe this is the right time to start him at ten in a Six Nations game.
“The more I’ve seen him play and train the more encouraged I am about him in that role. And there’s a lot more to come from him.
“We want to encourage his running game more. He is such a threat with ball in hand and such a good passer. Sometimes he gets the balance too much on passing rather than running but I felt in the last game he played against Connacht he did that really well. He was a threat himself, he put others in space and he kicked well too.
“You’ve got to reward that if you feel it will help the team. We are obviously well aware that we have someone with real experience on the bench who can add to or change our game or do what’s right if called on.”
Kinghorn will also assume goalkicking responsibilities in Dublin, not something he does regularly for Edinburgh. Russell is not a frontline kicker at club level either but has had a solid championship off the tee, kicking seven out of seven penalties and six from eight conversions for an 86 per cent success rate, so it’s a tough act to follow in that sense as well. Townsend revealed that Kinghorn has been working closely with Chris Paterson on his kicking game.
Unsurprisingly, Russell’s demotion and Kinghorn’s selection dominated the team announcement press conference and it almost slipped under the radar that there was one other change to the side which beat Italy with Jonny Gray returning to the starting XV after missing the last two games due to an ankle injury. He replaces Sam Skinner in the second row, with the latter among the replacements.
“He brings physicality, huge work rate defensively, support of the ball carrier in contact and in contact himself,” Townsend said of Gray’s return. “Those are areas we need to do well this weekend if we are going to be in a position to win.”
Alongside Skinner and Russell on the bench are hooker Fraser Brown and back-rower Josh Bayliss, both of who are in line for their first Six Nations outings of the season. Mark Bennett and Ben Christie are also back among the replacements, coming in for Sione Tuipulotu and Ben Vellacott respectively, who will instead be involved in Friday’s 1872 Cup match.
Scotland team (v Ireland, Guinness Six Nations, Aviva Stadium, Dublin, Saturday, 4.45pm. TV: live on ITV)
15. Stuart Hogg - Exeter Chiefs - (Captain) - 92 caps
14. Darcy Graham - Edinburgh Rugby - 26 caps
13. Chris Harris - Gloucester Rugby - (Vice-Captain) - 35 caps
12. Sam Johnson - Glasgow Warriors - 23 caps
11. Kyle Steyn - Glasgow Warriors - 4 caps
10. Blair Kinghorn - Edinburgh Rugby - 30 caps
9. Ali Price - Glasgow Warriors - 50 caps
1. Pierre Schoeman - Edinburgh Rugby - 8 caps
2. George Turner - Glasgow Warriors - 24 caps
3. Zander Fagerson - Glasgow Warriors - 46 caps
4. Jonny Gray - Exeter Chiefs - 66 caps
5. Grant Gilchrist - Edinburgh Rugby - (Vice-Captain) - 52 caps
6. Rory Darge - Glasgow Warriors - 3 caps
7. Hamish Watson - Edinburgh Rugby - 48 caps
8. Matt Fagerson - Glasgow Warriors - 20 caps
16. Fraser Brown - Glasgow Warriors - 54 caps
17. Allan Dell - London Irish - 33 caps
18. WP Nel - Edinburgh Rugby - 47 caps
19. Sam Skinner - Exeter Chiefs - 19 caps
20. Josh Bayliss - Bath Rugby - 2 caps
21. Ben White - London Irish - 3 caps
22. Finn Russell – Racing 92 – 62 caps
23. Mark Bennett - Edinburgh Rugby - 23 caps
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