Italy v Scotland: Gregor Townsend on Blair Kinghorn absence and why he’s kept faith with Finn Russell

On the basis that form is temporary but class is permanent, Gregor Townsend has kept faith with Finn Russell for the Six Nations clash with Italy and backed the stand-off to rediscover the sparkle which was conspicuously absent during the home loss to France last month.

The Scotland coach has made five changes for Saturday’s match in Rome as he searches for the winning blend after back-to-back defeats.

Scotland have not won since beating England on the opening weekend of the championship and the side selected to face Italy is as close as Townsend could get to the line-up which lifted the Calcutta Cup.

Back into the team come Sam Johnson at inside centre, George Turner at hooker, Hamish Watson at openside flanker and Matt Fagerson at No 8. All four started against Eddie Jones’ men.

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The other change is enforced, with Kyle Steyn replacing the suspended Duhan van der Merwe on the left wing. It is Steyn’s first appearance in this season’s Six Nations and his first start for Scotland since he scored four tries against Tonga in the autumn.

Russell dazzled in spells against England and set up Darcy Graham for his try against Wales but this championship has not seen the best of the gifted playmaker.

Nevertheless, Townsend has stuck by him despite bringing Adam Hastings into camp this week. Hastings, who was left out of the coach’s original 39-man Six Nations squad, is among the replacements for Italy.

There is no place in the match-day 23 for Blair Kinghorn, the back-up stand-off, due to personal reasons. “He is just unavailable for this game. We believe he will be available for Ireland,” said Townsend.

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Finn Russell, left, and Hamish Watson at Edinburgh Airport ahead of Scotland's flight to Rome for the Six Nations game against Italy. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)

Scotland need to win in Rome on Saturday and Dublin next weekend if they are to equal the tally of three victories they achieved under Townsend in the Six Nations campaigns of 2018, 2020 and 2021. To that end, the coach has returned in the main to the tried and trusted.

Asked if he considered dropping Russell, Townsend replied: “No, not really. We do look at every position and we look at players who are playing in that position and players who are just outside the starting team and what they are doing to get back in.

“But we also look at what a player has done before and what we believe they can do again, how he has reacted to performances. Finn is one of our key leaders and he has led really well this week.”

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Rory Darge impressed for Scotland against France last month at BT Murrayfield, scoring his first Test try. (Picture by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

The return of Johnson will mean Russell has a more familiar midfield partner outside him. The Glasgow Warriors centre was discarded after the England win, failing to make even the bench for the games against Wales and France. He was replaced by his club-mate Sione Tuipulotu who is among the replacements this weekend.

“We feel that Sam has done well for us in the past and he was unlucky not to be selected after the England game,” said Townsend. “Sam’s played in a lot of our key wins, whether it’s England, Australia, France last year. That shows he’s playing well as an individual but also that he’s helping the team play well.

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“Sione played well in those two games so I don’t think there’s anything that Sione’s done wrong. He’s got work-ons like every player but I feel he’s come into the Test environment, shown what he can do and has improved from Wales to France.”

Steyn, meanwhile, has had to be patient since the autumn. While there are likely to be fewer opportunities against Italy, his pace and eye for the line could be key.

Gregor Townsend at Edinburgh Airport for Scotland's flight to Italy. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)

“Kyle has been waiting for this opportunity for a while,” added Townsend. “He played really well against Tonga and scored four tries, he played really well off the bench against Australia, but then didn’t play after that. So, we know how well Kyle has played at Test level ever since he came off the bench against France in 2020 for his first cap.”

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The coach has made three changes to his pack. Turner gets the nod as starting hooker ahead of Stuart McInally, who is on the bench, and there are returns for Watson and Matt Fagerson in the back row.

Watson missed the France game after testing positive for Covid while Fagerson was absent due to a foot injury. Fagerson’s inclusion means Magnus Bradbury drops to the bench. Watson’s selection alongside Rory Darge means Scotland will tackle Italy with two natural opensides. Townsend was hugely impressed by Darge’s performance against France in what was his first start for his country but has urged the whole back row in Rome to stay on the right side of the referee, the RFU’s Luke Pearce.

“The performance of Rory Darge was probably our best individual performance of the championship so far so to put Rory with the other two is exciting for us,” said the coach. “They’ve all got to back it up, but also adapt to the game and to the referee. I think the players who have to adapt to the referee most are the back rowers, particularly the opensides.”

As well as Hastings, there are also first sightings in this championship on the bench of Allan Dell and Ben Vellacott.

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Dell steps up as cover at loosehead prop in the absence of the injured Rory Sutherland and Oli Kebble. The uncapped Vellacott is preferred to Ben White as reserve scrum-half and Townsend thinks the conditions could suit the Edinburgh No 9 who impressed off the bench in the big win over Connacht last Friday.

Kyle Steyn has been picked to start for Scotland against Italy. (Photo by Paul Devlin / SNS Group)

“We believe this is a good fixture for him to come in, mainly because of the weather conditions. The forecast looks good. I imagine the game will be played at a high tempo and we feel that Ben can raise that tempo as well.”

Mark Bennett is missing after a whack on the ribs against France limited his ability to train.

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Scotland (v Italy, Guinness Six Nations, Stadio Olimpico, Rome, Saturday, 2.15pm GMT. TV: live on ITV)

15. Stuart Hogg (c); 14. Darcy Graham, 13. Chris Harris, 12. Sam Johnson, 11. Kyle Steyn; 10. Finn Russell, 9. Ali Price; 1. Pierre Schoeman, 2. George Turner, 3. Zander Fagerson, 4. Sam Skinner, 5. Grant Gilchrist, 6. Rory Darge, 7. Hamish Watson, 8. Matt Fagerson.

Replacements: 16. Stuart McInally, 17. Allan Dell, 18. WP Nel, 19. Jamie Hodgson, 20. Magnus Bradbury, 21. Ben Vellacott, 22. Adam Hastings, 23. Sione Tuipulotu.

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