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Six Nations 2022: Gregor Townsend all-in with The Blair Switch Project as Scots head to Ireland

Blair Kinghorn (r) has replaced Finn Russell at stand-off for Scotland.
Blair Kinghorn (r) has replaced Finn Russell at stand-off for Scotland.

Well, we suspected that Gregor Townsend was keen to see Blair Kinghorn run in a big game at 10, but in the Guinness Six Nations, in Dublin, against a rampant Ireland?

The 25-year-old Kinghorn – it’s taken a seven-year journey to get him to what Townsend now calls his ‘natural position’ – had a run out at 10 against Tonga in November. He’s played 10 games there for Edinburgh this season.

But the only one of those against an Irish province – the clear benchmark of excellence in the UFC – was against Connacht a couple of weeks ago.

But for a brief exchange about Jonny Gray’s return, Townsend’s entire media session was concerned with this one selection change. The head coach was adamant this was a meritorious selection based on Kinghorn’s form and not on Finn Russell’s perceived slump since the Calcutta Cup.

After 11 starts and a couple of replacement runs, Kinghorn gets the nod in maybe the toughest away venue for Scotland in Europe, over surely the best Scottish 10 in a generation. It’s a pretty bold call.

Scotland have a summer tour to South America, so why now and not then?

“We believe it’s the right time, the right time for the team and for Blair. He reminded us a couple of weeks ago of what he can do against Connacht and he came off the bench and did really well against Wales.

He will also kick goals, even though he hasn’t been doing so for Edinburgh. But is this part of a project or is this on merit?

“I look at it more in terms of what he can do to help us win,” said Townsend. “The more I’ve seen him play and train the more encouraged I am about him in that role. And there’s a lot more to come from him.

“We want to encourage his running game more. He is such a threat with ball in hand and such a good passer.

“Sometimes he gets the balance too much on passing rather than running but I felt in the last game he did that really well. He was a threat himself, he put others in space and he kicked well too.”

Edinburgh have been transformed with Kinghorn at 10, Townsend argues.

“I know people might not see Blair as a 10 because they’ve not seen him much there.

“But if a team has gone from scoring hardly any tries, certainly not recording bonus points, to regularly scoring tries and winning games with bonuses, then a lot of that is down to your 10.

“What he’s doing to put others into space and to make the attack function well. Blair has to take massive credit for that.”

If he’s this good, why’s it taken so long to get him there?

“It’s only really been in the last year. The move to playing there at the end of last season, when Edinburgh started opening up their game much more – that gave me encouragement.

“The game has also changed too. For me, that position is now about someone who can run with the ball and pass with the ball, rather than what it was five or ten years ago when it was more about kicking.

“Kicking now is about attacking kicks as well, putting pressure on teams. And you see the best 10s in the world being able to do that.

“We’re fortunate that we have more than just Blair able to do that, but Blair’s strengths are more suited to the position now.

Is Finn out of form?

“Players’ form goes up and down. Teams’ form goes up and down. A lot of it is circumstances. Were you able to get into the game? Were you able to bring your strengths out? But that doesn’t concern me.

“What we see in training is the consistent ability of our players, in this case Finn and how well he trains. If you’re diligent and professional then you’ll get your reward for that, even if one game or one aspect of a game doesn’t go as well for you.”

Ireland will be a good measuring stick of where Scotland are

“The 80 minutes is obviously just a fifth of the championship but it will be fresh in our minds. It will be part of our assessment of where we are, what we need to do and where we need to improve as we go into the summer and the following season.

“Ireland are going for the Triple Crown and are in such good form, having only lost one game this year and that was away to France in a close defeat.

“We’ve obviously had a couple of close games in the last two Six Nations. We’ll look at opportunities that we didn’t take.

“Ireland will pose similar threats in the areas that they’ve always been strong; in contact, the ability to go through phases, their set-piece, their kicking game and through the individuals they have in the team.

“But even more now, with their ambitious way of playing, it means more threats to our defence.”

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