Kinghorn has not started a match at fly-half this year, with his most recent games for Edinburgh coming on the wing. His last start for Scotland was a try-scoring outing at stand-off in the home defeat by Australia in October but his four appearances from the bench in this season’s Six Nations have been in the back three. In the absence of the injured Finn Russell, Townsend has opted for Kinghorn ahead of Ben Healy, the uncapped Munster 10 who switched allegiance to Scotland this year and is named on the bench.
“We believe in Blair,” said Townsend as Scotland seek to end their campaign with a win which would likely deliver a third-place finish. “He has played more games at Test level at 10 than Ben, Ben has not played Test level yet. Blair has had a lot of connections with those guys around him in the Test environment.”
Kinghorn played five Tests in a row at 10 last year and Townsend said he still viewed him as a stand-off despite utilising him as a back-three replacement during this campaign, the positions in which he first made his name in international rugby. His last three starts for Edinburgh have all come on the wing but the national coach is confident he can slot back into the playmaker’s role. “We’ve seen him train and how well he’s stepped up as first receiver,” said Townsend. “Finn didn’t train at all last Wednesday and Blair was outstanding that day. I believe now, with how we are playing, it will suit Blair even more. He has the defence focused on the people outside to open up opportunities for him. Also the confidence of those guys calling for the ball a lot will mean he doesn’t have to be the one thinking and coming up with solutions all the time.”
Kinghorn connected well with scrum-half Ben White during the win over the Pumas in the second Test in Salta in July and Townsend believes the pair can do similar against Italy at Murrayfield. Kinghorn’s inclusion is one of four changes made by the coach to his starting XV. With Stuart Hogg ruled out because of an ankle injury, Ollie Smith has been picked at full-back and will make his first Six Nations appearance. Richie Gray, who hurt his ribs against Ireland, misses out and his place is taken by Sam Skinner who is preferred to Scott Cummings. Cummings replaced Gray last Sunday and is named again among the substitutes. There is a return for Hamish Watson, with Matt Fagerson dropping to the bench. Watson is at openside flanker, with captain Jamie Ritchie reverting to blindside and Jack Dempsey retaining the No 8 jersey.
Townsend has changed all three front-row replacements, bringing in Ewan Ashman, Rory Sutherland and WP Nel for Fraser Brown, Jamie Bhatti and Simon Berghan, with Ashman and Sutherland set for their first taste of action in this Six Nations. There should also be a first outing of the campaign for Cameron Redpath who is preferred to Chris Harris as the replacement centre.