Scotland travelled to Cardiff in good spirits last February, with the hammering they had given the Wallabies the previous November still offering a warm glow in their bellies. Much was expected of Scotland’s new coach Gregor Townsend, who was threatening to rip up the rule book with a brand new style of super quick Test match rugby, the speed dial turned all the way up to 11.
But Scotland were never at the races against Wales. Ali Price conceded an early interception. Leigh Halfpenny scored his first Test try for five years… and then his second. Scotland finished several furlongs behind the winners. Only a late, opportunistic score by Peter Horne saved them from being nilled on the day. Townsend looked almost ill at the post-match press conference, the journalists were muted, the fans angry, the players bewildered; thank goodness one person, at least, was enjoying himself.
“I was there as 24th man,” recalls Blair Kinghorn. “I was rooming with Henry Pyrgos, who was the 25th man. It was a brilliant experience, my first taste of being 24th man in an away game!
“Obviously it was a really disappointing result but a good experience to be in with the team, doing the warm-up, and seeing what it’s like on matchday in an international set-up.
“It wasn’t the result we were looking for. We had a hard look at it, reviewed it and realised we just didn’t play the way we wanted to play. We’re looking to put the wrongs right when we go down there now.”
Kinghorn is in pole position to replace the injured Stuart Hogg at full-back in the Scotland starting XV although he is having none of it, insisting that there are any number of rivals for that shirt. In the absence of Hogg, and with Sean Maitland unavailable, the back-three cupboard is startlingly bare. Tommy Seymour played full-back for Glasgow last weekend but Townsend is unlikely to repeat that experiment if only because the most likely candidate to fill the vacated position is… Kinghorn. Instead Lee Jones and Seymour are likely to start on the flanks.
The back three are largely interchangeable these days. The winger’s main role lies in defusing the bombs that come their way and chasing box kicks. How many times do the All Blacks kick to contest and win the ball back 30-odd metres up the field? Kinghorn’s opposite number next weekend, Halfpenny, is equally versatile. Like the Scot, the veteran Welshman made his international debut on the wing before moving to 15, more or less permanently.
“The whole back three is pretty connected,” says Kinghorn, “we’ve all got pretty similar roles. You need to understand what the full-back is doing if you’re out on the wing, and you need to understand what the winger’s doing if you’re at full-back.
“It’s all pretty interchangeable. Some people feel more comfortable playing full-back if they’ve been playing there for their club. The whole back three works as a unit together, we’re all pretty close.”
If Townsend is struggling for back-three players the same is true in the back row. Presuming Ryan Wilson and Hamish Watson are two probable starters, that leaves one place still to be filled.
The only breakaway who is not injured, available to play and did not turn out for Glasgow or Edinburgh this weekend is Jamie Ritchie. If he is selected against Wales it will be only his second start for Scotland and his third appearance but, despite starting for Glasgow, Matt Fagerson may yet get the nod.
In some respects Kinghorn is from the same mould as his colleagues in the national back division because his attack is better than his defence. He is a wonderfully dangerous runner ball in hand, standing second overall in the Pro14 stats for metres made this season, light on his feet and surprisingly quick into his running for such a leggy bloke.
Kinghorn can be good under the high ball but he can also be ordinary at times and his tackling remains the weak link in his armoury. His miss on Benjamin Fall for Montpellier’s second try in the opening round of the Champions Cup was a case in point.
He is working on his add-ons, “kicking, passing, running and tackling” with Edinburgh defence coach Calum MacRae taking a lead role. The Scots have not won in Cardiff since 2002 when hooker Gordon Bulloch came up with a pair of tries from driven mauls, which was typical of that era.
With a host of injuries to front-line players and several “foreign-based” names like David Denton, Sean Maitland, Sam Skinner and Blade Thomson all unavailable, the Glasgow/Edinburgh squad that is selected will need to be at their very best to get a result on Saturday at a venue that does not seem to suit them.
“Once the roof’s shut, it’s a pretty intimidating place to go,” says the full-back. “It’s a great stadium, the noise is unbelievable and the atmosphere is brilliant. It’s places like that you want to go and play rugby. When we went to Thomond Park with Edinburgh it was brilliant, it’s a cauldron, a tough place to go, but that’s where you want to go and challenge yourself as a team.
“At the Principality, you try to talk to people in the warm-up and you can’t really hear them. It’s a brilliant atmosphere, they always get a great crowd in there and the noise is always right at the top.”
We will see just how many fans turn up for this match which falls outside the official Test window, tickets were still available late last week if you’re interested.
There is still a big step up from club rugby to the white-hot heat of Test match intensity but at least Edinburgh and their full-back have Champions Cup experience to help them acclimatise.
Kinghorn didn’t get capped in Cardiff, instead he came off the bench in the Calcutta Cup to make his international debut, a thrillingly memorable introduction to Test rugby.
“I was really nervous before my first cap, so it’s about getting in your own zone,” Kinghorn recalls. “One thing that sticks in my mind is sitting in the changing room beforehand and Greig Laidlaw coming over to say, ‘just do your thing’.”
It seems like sound advice, Kinghorn has been doing his thing ever since.