Scotland Six Nations verdict: Gregor Townsend on Blair Kinghorn’s future and the need for more accuracy

Finishing third behind the two best teams in the world is a fine achievement but the verdict on Scotland’s 2023 Six Nations campaign would have been very different if they hadn’t stood firm against the late Italian onslaught on Saturday.

That they did is testament to the durability of the Scottish defence who limited the visitors to one try at Murrayfield, the fewest scored by Italy across their four matches. But there was a period in the second half during which the home side saw their 19-6 lead whittled down to 19-14 that set alarm bells ringing. Jamie Ritchie, the Scotland captain, claimed after the match that he “wasn’t worried” and “didn't feel anxious at all”. He either has ice in his veins or his tongue was firmly in his cheek because if Italy had nicked a try at the end and gone on to convert then the post-mortem into Scotland’s Six Nations would have been done with a decidedly sharper-edged tool. As it was, Italy conceded a late scrum close to the Scottish line and the home side broke away to score a breathtaking try which added a dollop of gloss to the 26-14 scoreline. Blair Kinghorn started and finished the move but owes a huge debt of gratitude to Duhan van der Merwe whose jet-heeled sprint up the left wing caught Italy cold. Kinghorn matched his run all the way, taking the return pass on halfway and running in his hat-trick score. It was a remarkable try, coming as it did when the 80 minutes were up and most mere mortals had exhausted their energy supplies. Not so van der Merwe and Kinghorn whose speed, stamina and dexterity deserve all the praise that came their way. Van der Merwe has earlier scored Scotland's opening try with an outrageous airborne finish.

The win over Italy along with the earlier victories over England and Wales combined to make it a broadly successful campaign for Gregor Townsend’s team but the coach said he would dwell more on the defeats, against Ireland and France. Losing to the sides ranking first and second is no disgrace, of course, but Townsend felt the match in Paris was a missed opportunity for Scotland who recovered impressively after a horrendous start which saw them trail 19-0 and reduced to 14 men after 20 minutes. Against Ireland at home, Scotland more than matched the visitors in the first half but were distinctly second best after the break.

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“In the France match, our game was there to score points,” Townsend reflected. “Three times we were on the try-line and didn’t get the ball over or it was fumbled over the line. In the second half we got opportunities a little bit further away from the try-line, but our composure and I suppose our clinical edge would have got us points. I don’t think there was anything that we would have done differently in that game. The Ireland game, the first half was a template, the second half we weren’t accurate enough. But getting that clinical edge is what we’ve been working on this year. We brought it out in some games, England and Wales in particular, we just need to bring that out every time we play.”

Thoughts now turn to the Rugby World Cup in the autumn and one of the big decisions facing Townsend is how and where to accommodate Kinghorn. The versatile Edinburgh man’s hat-trick on Saturday meant he finished the Six Nations with four tries, equal with Huw Jones as Scotland’s top try-scorer. Only one player in the tournament finished with more, France’s winger Damian Penaud, who got five. It could be argued that three of Kinghorn’s came against the weakest team but it should also be noted that this was the only game he started. In the absence of the injured Finn Russell, Kinghorn lined up at stand-off in the Italy game, moving to full-back when Ben Healy came on for his debut with 13 minutes to go. Russell’s form in the championship rubber stamped his right to start at 10 for Scotland at the World Cup and made a mockery of his exclusion from the original Autumn Nations Series squad. Kinghorn, who hadn’t started a game at 10 all year, was not on Russell’s level when it came to attacking vision or passing accuracy but his three tries showcased his value. The first came via a neat sidestep, the second demonstrated his strength as he forced his way between Sebastian Negri and Juan Ignacio Brex, and the third his pace and athleticism. A place in the team surely needs to be found for such attributes and it was interesting to hear Townsend suggest that he now felt Kinghorn’s future at Test level probably lay in the back three.

“Finn’s obviously playing very well at 10. So Blair is pushing more for the back three positions than 10. But I loved the fact he got to play 10 on Saturday. He did well, scored three tries and his goal-kicking was good. He can take a lot of confidence back to playing for Edinburgh over these next few weeks, whether that’s at 10 or in the back three. Even the way Blair came off the bench in previous games, he looks faster and bigger. Whether that’s to do with conditioning, or just confidence to take players on, I don’t know. In the Ireland game, he made a couple of good breaks out wide. England, too. Against Wales, he surged through in the same corner of the field as where he scored at the end of the game against Italy as well. These are massive positives for us. It may be that he finds himself in the starting team, or he’s on the bench. But, either way, I think he’s going to add to our team.”



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