Blair Kinghorn’s raw talent alone is worthy of the starting Scotland team in Dublin now the 21-year-old has rid his game of raw mistakes, believes head coach Gregor Townsend.
Kinghorn, from Edinburgh, is a rare physical specimen – 6ft 5in and 15st, but fast – and that seems to have got him the nod for Dublin for his first start against the predictable Irish aerial bombardment in the absence of the injured Tommy Seymour.
Despite the public assurances that Seymour was running freely and would be OK, Townsend said yesterday that “time had run out” on his back injury, forcing the only change to what would have been a simple rubber-stamp of the Calcutta Cup heroes. Kinghorn was told just an hour before the team announcement that he would follow up his 15 minutes of a first cap against England with a start in the Aviva Stadium.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said, having had just enough time to text his parents. “I’m really excited for the weekend. I can’t wait to get out there.”
Just three years ago almost to the week Kinghorn was man of the match for Scotland Schools against their Irish counterparts.
His size and speed – he was a centre back in the Hearts Academy but doesn’t seem to have been considered for the pack in rugby, oddly – have earmarked him as a talent, but basic errors in his first two seasons at Edinburgh seemed to have slowed his progress.
However the influence of Richard Cockerill, Duncan Hodge and Calum MacRae at Edinburgh on the player has been all too evident this season. Kinghorn leads the Pro14 in metres gained – despite missing the last three games as he’s been with Scotland – has scored four tries with five assists, all while playing a vastly improved defensive game.
“Probably he has matured is by making mistakes, and realising that it’s not going to get him too far in his rugby career,” said Townsend. “You need to go through that. The first two months of the year, he was outstanding, then he did have a few games where he made errors or lost his focus but in the last two or three months, he’s been back to even better form.
“He came on in a huge game for his first cap two weeks ago and made seven or eight tackles in a short period of time, looked confident, looked aggressive.”
Kinghorn has been part of Townsend’s thoughts for much of the season. However Scotland have a pretty decent full back already, and the talks were always about playing on the wing.
Townsend said: “Blair’s a very good full back in his own right, but we have one of the best full backs in the world – if not the best – playing for us.
“If he’s challenging Stuart Hogg then that means he’s up there with the best in the world. But, with his pace and his rugby ability, moving to the wing gives us another option in that position.”
The decision was eased with Byron McGuigan not quite ready to return and Lee Jones, although he comes on to the bench, doesn’t quite have the same physical presence to go up against Ireland’s big youngster Jacob Stockdale and as Ireland put up their usual quota of box kicks.
“We just feel the balance of what we might expect from Ireland, along with the potential weather conditions, means having that extra full back in the back three is better for us this week,” added Townsend.
“We have to deal with the ball in the air and try to get as many poor kicks from Ireland as possible.”
Kinghorn’s first cap was in front of four times as large a crowd as he’d experienced before, but it was a good feeling to beat England first time up.
“It was good to get out there and play in front of that many people,” he said.
Ireland away is going to be a tougher experience, but he believes it is his self-confidence that has been the change in his game this year.
“I’ve worked on basic skills, but I feel like I always back myself now as if you ever doubt yourself that’s when you make mistakes,” he said.
Despite all the experienced hands called up, the Scots have made only one other alteration to Kinghorn’s ascent to the starting team and Jones on the bench, with Fraser Brown returning to back up Stuart McInally at hooker.