Such has been their contribution and influence that it will feel a little strange to see the team line up for the anthems minus the injured pair. They leave big shoes to fill, so step forward Ollie Smith and Blair Kinghorn, who will play at full-back and stand-off respectively as Gregor Townsend’s side seek the win that would likely secure third place, equalling Scotland’s highest finish in the championship since it was expanded to six teams.
The twice-capped Smith will be making his Six Nations debut and will be looking for his first win at Test level. His international bow came in the third Test against Argentina in Santiago del Estero in the summer and Scotland were 31-27 ahead when he was replaced in the 75th minute. Unfortunately for the tourists, Emiliano Boffelli’s last-gasp converted try meant the Pumas won 34-31 to clinch the series. Smith made his second start in the autumn opener against Australia when a team of home-based Scots were edged out 16-15. The Glasgow Warriors full-back has since had to be patient but Townsend believes the 22-year-old has shown enough to suggest he will handle the occasion on Saturday. “He stepped up in a challenging environment in Argentina, that third Test, a noisy atmosphere, for his first cap and he played really well,” said the Scotland coach. “He played very well against Australia in November, and he’s been unlucky that he’s gone up against our most capped player in our squad in Stuart Hogg, so that’s one reason why he’s not been involved. I feel he’s really added to his game this year at Glasgow as well, with very good linking ability. He’s had to play wing on a couple of occasions. I believe that he’s got that balance now with his running ability – very evasive and very strong – but also able to put people into space. That’s something that will help those around him.”
If Smith has had to exercise a degree of flexibility in terms of his position it is nothing compared to what Kinghorn has gone through. His well publicised conversion from back-three player to stand-off reached its apotheosis last year when he was selected at 10 for five Test matches in a row. He started ahead of Russell against Ireland in Dublin in the final game of last season’s Six Nations and played the full 80 minutes in all three matches of the summer tour to Argentina for which Russell was rested. He retained the jersey for the first match of the autumn series against the Wallabies but was then replaced by Adam Hastings for the next game, against Fiji, before Russell returned to the squad for the matches against New Zealand and Argentina and held on to the 10 jersey for this season’s Six Nations. Townsend said Kinghorn had been “disappointed” to lose his place in the autumn but the coach was impressed with how he responded, notably in his performance for Edinburgh against Saracens away in the Champions Cup in November. However, Kinghorn has this year found himself returned to back-three duties. He has not started a game at stand-off since Edinburgh’s defeat by Glasgow Warriors at Murrayfield on December 30 when opposite number Tom Jordan stole his thunder. His last three club starts have come on the wing and his four substitute appearances in the Six Nations have been in the back three as a replacement for Hogg (on three occasions) and Kyle Steyn (once).
Kinghorn would be forgiven for feeling a little bewildered by being shuffled around three different roles but Townsend still views him as a stand-off and confirmed he will also assume place-kicking duties on Saturday. “We see Blair as a 10 who can play a number of positions,” said the coach. “I know he’s had to play in the back three because of injury at Edinburgh but he’s played [at 10] for the last two seasons. I believe we’ll see a really confident Blair Kinghorn, someone in very good physical shape. He’s shown that in different positions so far this year, but we’re looking forward to him playing at 10. He’s played some really good games for us in the last 12 months in that position.”
As well as the two high-profile changes in the backs, Townsend has made two alterations to his pack, with Sam Skinner coming in for injured lock Richie Gray, and Hamish Watson returning to the starting XV in a rejigged back row that sees Matt Fagerson drop to the bench and Jamie Ritchie revert to blindside. Italy are winless in this season’s Six Nations but that doesn’t reflect the way they have played and Townsend is wary of their attacking prowess.
“Even if we had Richie, Finn and Stuart playing, this was going to be a tough game,” he said. “If they get their game right – and it’s very ambitious, playing from their own 22 – you’re on the back foot and conceding linebreaks that can cause you a lot of angst. It also means you’ll concede points. We have to make sure our defence is ready for that threat but also wins the ball back and we get to attack Italy. Last week they had a huge build up to that game against Wales, and they maybe lost a little bit of their accuracy finishing things off when they made those linebreaks. Now there’s nothing to lose for them, they took that attitude into Cardiff last year and played an outstanding game, should have won by more. They’re a growing team at national level and at under-20s and under-18s level. It's great for European rugby and great for the Six Nations, not so good for us this weekend because they’ll be a real challenge.”