The last time Blair Kinghorn was in Canada he went downhill very quickly indeed, although that is the general idea when you are at Whistler Mountain, an exclusive ski resort one hour’s drive north of Vancouver where the Scotland squad are training ahead of next weekend’s Test in Edmonton.
The leggy full-back has been the surprise package of the season. Stuart Hogg looked untouchable after winning back-to-back Player of the Six Nations awards and twice touring with the Lions, but if Gregor Townsend was to pick a full-back on current form alone the Scotland coach would have a bit of head scratching to do. Actually that’s not true. On current form alone, Kinghorn is a shoo-in.
Early in the season Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill opined that his young full-back made too many errors to challenge for a Scotland jersey but that it would take “six, eight, ten or 12 months” for Kinghorn to get there. He was wrong. Three months later Kinghorn got his chance in the Six Nations.
“I feel that mistakes are part of the game, that’s just part of life,” Kinghorn replies when quizzed about his occasional moments of slapstick. “I felt like I have just been working much harder, whether that be on my individual skills throughout the week, doing extra reviewing or [researching] what attacks are going to throw at us.
“But I never want to second guess my instincts so if I feel like it’s the right decision I am going to do it. [It’s] more just working on the skill to execute it, so whether that’s kicking or working on all your little bits throughout the week... I never really want to second guess myself so if you are going to do something, do it 100 per cent.
“If you make a mistake it’s costly, you pay for it. It was a great learning curve. You need experience to grow and I felt like I have done that in the last couple of months.”
While Kinghorn is his own man there are a surprising number of similarities with Hogg. Both men kick the ball a mile, both have the beating of a defender and both have a decent turn of pace. One difference is that Kinghorn popped up seven times in the Opta statistics that are recorded on each round of the Guinness Pro14, more so than any other Scot.
Townsend can accommodate both Hogg and Kinghorn by shifting the latter to the wing, where he played against England and Ireland. With only two specialist wingers in this touring squad, Lee Jones and Byron McGuigan, that is an obvious option although it would be nice to see the form man play international rugby in what has become his favoured position. Although he grew up playing ten, Kinghorn thinks that particular train has left the station.
“Wherever Gregor picks me I will play,” says the 21-year-old, adopting the answer patented by Chris Paterson almost 20 years back. “I am not that bothered. If that is on the wing, at full-back, on the bench or not involved. I will keep working hard and see what happens.
“I see myself as a 15. I can play ten or 15. I don’t mind stepping into first receiver, it feels quite natural to me, but ten is a position I am a bit out of tune with because I haven’t played it that much.”
Kinghorn is only one of several young players on this tour who may already have one eye on next year’s World Cup in Japan. Including the full-back there are nine players between the ages of 19 and 23 although how many of the “bairns” will book a place on the plane to Japan is a moot point. Several of them came through the ranks together and they will provide support and encouragement for each other on their first senior tour, which includes Tests against the USA and Argentina as well as the opener against Canada.
They will be helped by the standard of the opposition. Only four years ago Vern Cotter’s side almost lost against Canada in Toronto and might have done so but for a wrong-headed red card for flanker Jebb Sinclair and the reversal of a penalty that could have given Canada a late lead. In May of 2014 Canada were ranked 15th in the world. Four years on they have slipped to 21st, below Spain, Uruguay and Russia; their fall from grace worthy of an article in itself.
If Canada are waning, at least Kinghorn’s star is in the ascendant. Just as he personified Edinburgh’s problems last season when he looked like he’d rather be signing on at the “buroo”, so the full-back’s recovery has also mirrored that of his club and for the same reasons.
When asked how he had cut the mistakes from his game, Kinghorn talks about how, “if you work harder, you get more luck”.
It has been a breakthrough season for the full-back but also a long one for the youngster. Would he prefer to be on the beach in June or was Kinghorn animated about the prospect of adding to his two caps? “You definitely just feel excited,” he replies. “If you’re getting called up to the national squad you’re not thinking about anything else...it’s just a massive honour to be included in the squad. You kind of park your tiredness. We’ve had a couple of weeks off since the end of the season. We’ve been training really hard in here [their Oriam base in Edinburgh]. You’re just really excited to be involved with a great team.”
Everyone has one eye on the elephant in the room, next year’s World Cup in Japan where Scotland are pooled with the host nation.
“Yeah, definitely, I feel like that’s the end goal,” Kinghorn says. “Everything’s building towards the World Cup. If I do get an opportunity to play, I’ll just try to put my best foot forward, so fingers crossed I can keep training well and playing well and you never know what can happen.”