Interview: Blair Kinghorn on Stuart Hogg, the World Cup, hat-trick heroics and why he quit Hearts to play rugby

Blair Kinghorn has made 17 appearances for Scotland. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS
Blair Kinghorn has made 17 appearances for Scotland. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS
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On Election Day I am with a man called Blair, chatting over coffee close to Fettes College. This is not Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister, who often spoke of feeling the hand of history on his shoulders but as a Fettesian did not want anyone trampling on them and couldn’t be persuaded to play rugby. Blair Kinghorn, though, is thrilled to be a Scotland internationalist, 17 caps so far and looking to kick on in 2020, one of a clutch of talented young bucks who, post-Japan, are trying to make us feel better about the country’s oval-ball prospects.

We are even nearer to the home of Edinburgh Accies, currently having built for them a spankingly big – and spankingly controversial – new grandstand. Nothing against rugby, I say, but in this setting it’s a monstrosity. Kinghorn points out, correctly, that I don’t live here anymore, so have given up Nimby rights, and adds: “It’s going to be great.” At least the trees have been saved, I say. “I haven’t thought about them,” he shrugs. Isn’t he worried about parking? “Not really, I just live across the road.”

He’s biased, too, as an ex-pupil of Edinburgh Academy, the school which begat the club. Accies crowds can sometimes resemble little more than the classic three-men-and-a-thoroughbred, well-groomed dog, but Kinghorn believes the stand will attract bigger numbers. At one stage of the long and tortuous planning journey, there was the possibility the capital’s pro team might play their games at the revamped Stockbridge venue. Kinghorn, who is Edinburgh’s full-back, would have loved that, pointing out the bar-heavy conviviality of the area compared with the glumness of Myreside, an earlier temporary base for the team, but that opportunity has passed.

He and I are not going to agree about this development although I cannot be too hard on him. Kinghorn is family, you see – my first cousin once removed. My mother and his granny – my Auntie Jean – were sisters and when the two families got together, which was often, the eight kids played happily although there was keen competition to win the most sprints, catch the biggest fish and snaffle the most peas from Kincardineshire fields. As the oldest of the eight I was pretty much all-conquering, although I think I would have had trouble with Blair, who at 6ft 5ins causes almost as big a shadow as that stand. The cup for his cappuccino seems tiny, like it came from a doll’s house.

Kinghorn has one of the toughest gigs in rugby – understudy to Stuart Hogg. “Hoggy’s world-class,” he says, “and not playing can be tough.” But he doesn’t want to appear vulture-ish, waiting for the Exeter Chiefs buzzbomb to suffer injury or slow down. “He’s a great bloke and I can learn a lot from him. And, you know, I can also play on the wing. I don’t want people to forget that!”

He made his dark blue debut in 2018’s 
Six Nations and this year became the first Scot to plunder a hat-trick of tries in the Championship for 30 years. I’m imagining,
therefore, he’s keenly looking forward to February’s resumption of the old rivalries, especially after the disappointments and frustrations of the World Cup.

“Not yet,” he cautions. “They’ll come round when they do and I hope to be involved but right now the focus is on Edinburgh. If you don’t do it for your club you might not get picked [for your country] at all. Edinburgh are going well at the moment, there are some massive games ahead of us and I think we’re really about to click.”

Kinghorn is 22 and not one to shout his mouth off. You might wonder if he’s been media-trained to utter in the time-honoured way that he’s taking each game as it comes, but he says not. His reticence is rooted in knowing you’re only as good as your last outing, and hopefully not as dodgy as your most recent fumble.

With his big, rangy gallop he burst on the scene in the most sensational way but after that there were one or two iffy performances. No one knows this better than Kinghorn himself. Emerging seemingly from nowhere he had to learn about elite rugby on the hoof. “That can be tough. Make mistakes and they’re there for all to see. Brutal.” But he’s still young. Consistency and maturity will hopefully come, just as they did for Finn Russell. And he’s already proved some doubters wrong.

Richard Cockerill was just a couple of months into his job as Edinburgh’s head coach when, exasperatedly, he declared Kinghorn “too erratic” for international rugby. “Cockers isn’t shy, is he?” laughs our man. “He said what he said at the time and I’d like to think I knuckled down. I’ve got him to thank for any development that’s happened in my game and I’m sure that when I 
got capped he was the first to say: ‘Well done.’” So did he? “Er, I can’t actually remember!”

Being 22, Kinghorn talks in a language I don’t quite understand. There’s a blizzard of nicknames for his team-mates and if I stop him to seek clarification we’ll be here all day. I think I can guess that “Haste-oh” is Adam Hastings, his good buddy and room-mate from Japan and part of the future like him. And “Bergie” is Simon Berghan. Two winters ago the prop was red-carded in the fifth minute of an Edinburgh-Glasgow ding-dong. The impossible victory which resulted is Kinghorn’s favourite memory of these InterCity clashes which resume next Saturday, and when he talks about massive games, these two are uppermost.

His favourite words seem to be “class”, “carnage” and “beast”. Here he is describing his nerves in the countdown to that first cap as a second-half substitute in the thrilling 2018 Calcutta Cup triumph over England: “To put it bluntly – sorry, Mum, sorry, Granny – I was shitting myself! In the previous game against France, my first time making the bench, I didn’t get on. The longer you sit there, the more you overthink things, the more elaborate the scenario you invent in your head for what could go wrong.” So he was half-hoping he didn’t want his name called? “It was weird. What if, first thing, I was to drop the ball and the opposition raced away to score the clinching try? But all these daft thoughts left my head as soon as I got on to the pitch. Then it was … beast!”

I remember the moment well. The press-box is close to where the players’ families sit in Murrayfield’s West Stand. Kinghorn’s parents, retired policeman Simon and Karen, a business consultant, were poised and ready for the moment when their laddie’s hand went to the zip of his tracksuit top – but it was Granny who was first on her feet. I hadn’t heard Auntie Jean yelp like that since she and my mum won the South-East Scotland title for Indian club-twirling as members of the Women’s League of Health and Beauty.

“She’s my biggest fan,” smiles Kinghorn. “I love that I get a text from her before every match, always ‘Good luck – Granny.’ Awesome. She’s a season ticket-holder at Edinburgh and it was class her being with Mum and Dad to see me win my first cap. Thankfully I didn’t drop the ball.”

That was a momentous day but the hat-trick game against Italy topped it and again the family were present. Kinghorn’s mother has to stand up in her job in front of 20 “randoms” and talk – “I don’t know how she does that, it would freak me out.” She doesn’t know how he plays rugby before audiences of 70,000. Well, it’s a damn sight more easy if you bag three tries. “I know, but you’re so in it when you’re there. That was the best day of my life, no question.”

Kinghorn’s very first ambition in life was to be a Power Ranger. “The yellow guy, loved him. I had the costume. Granny made it for me, it was amazing.” But rugby wasn’t the first sport to obsess him; that was football. And he was pretty good with a round ball, briefly flirting with the idea of becoming a Hearts starlet.

“From six to 14 I played for Tynecastle Boys’ Club. These were great times and when we were under-13s we won the Scottish Cup. Jason Kerr was a team-mate and he went all the way to St Johnstone. Dad was the coach which was, um, interesting! We had a few lively debates if I wasn’t doing what he wanted. I guess the sons of coaches will always get it tough because the fathers don’t want to be seen to be showing any favouritism. Dad had this routine on the touchline where if I’d pissed him off he’d count up to ten on his fingers in the hope of calming himself right down. There was this game where I started to do it for him: ‘One, two, three … ’ He didn’t like that: ‘Right, you – off!’”

Playing in central defence, Kinghorn joined the Hearts youth set-up but was miserable there. “I didn’t enjoy it. Naively, I thought it would be similar to my boys’ club and I would have a laugh, but it was very serious. The training was performance-driven with a lot of coaches scrutinising you in almost a professional way. Aged 15 I had to decide between the two sports. Rugby was going well at school so I canned the football. I joined Currie and we won everything at under-16s including the Scottish Cup. I don’t look back over my shoulder at football. Not even when players are being transferred for a hundred million – honest!”

Initially a stand-off, Kinghorn pays homage to Currie centre Cammy Gray for “doing all my tackling for me – he just loved smashing into guys”. Kinghorn can’t avoid the physical now, and doesn’t, but he has a nose for a try and his pace is lethal. Who’s fastest between him and Hogg? Some reckon Kinghorn. “Hoggy’s rapid, don’t doubt that. And with those little legs of his going like pistons he looks fast, whereas I don’t. But that catches out the opposition sometimes … ”

Kinghorn admits, though, he was stopped in his tracks when Gregor Townsend dropped him after his hat-trick against Italy. He didn’t see that coming even though the decision, which he instantly respected, made total sense as a more experienced man, Sean Maitland, was fit to resume after injury. “I went quiet for a bit,” he says. The head coach said he went mute. “Yes, probably, but who sees eye-to-eye with their boss the entire time? In these situations there’s no point sulking. If you’re still simmering on the bench you could be called into action quickly and play crap.”

Kinghorn had to adopt the same philosophical attitude in Japan when a head knock in the final warm-up ruled him out of the World Cup opener against Ireland. That proved to be a good one to miss, but then he wasn’t picked for Samoa. He got his chance against Russia, and was part of a second-half overhaul against the host nation when, even though the Scots were heading out of the tournament, there was suddenly plenty of youthful talent on show and with it encouragement for down the line.

He wished he could have played more. He wishes Scotland could have stayed in the World Cup longer. Watching Ireland put our gas at a peep, not being able to help the cause, was hellish. “We were having to play high-tempo rugby in the wet, up against a world-class defence. It was tough. That game had been four months in the planning so there was a hangover after we lost. But personally there was no use me grumping about not getting into the team earlier than I did. You risk taking the group down with you.” He loved the Japanese culture and braved a meal of octopus – “although I bodyswerved the raw chicken”. He hated the heat but misses it now. French tunes, courtesy of DJ Finn Russell, transport him right back there. He should get two more World Cups, I suggest. “Why not three?”

Kinghorn knows that tries, never mind World Cups, won’t necessarily always amount to hat-tricks. But he has a remedy for disappointments: a coffee with a moan on the side he calls a “sappuccino”. “I do it with my mates all the time. You have a bitch for half an hour and then it’s gone. Everyone loves a sappuccino, don’t they? … ”