Why has Gregor Townsend and the Scotland management opted to pick Blair Kinghorn instead of Finn Russell? And most of all, why now?
Less than six weeks ago, Russell was being hailed as a tactical genius after he bossed the crucial final few minutes of Scotland’s 2017 Calcutta Cup victory over England.
His stock had hardly ever been higher, following on from his performance in the third test of the Lions Tour at South Africa which almost changed the course of that series.
Just three games later, he’s benched, and what we’re now all calling The Blair Switch Project went viral.
It’s certainly a plan worth trying. But the process has unquestionably been accelerated. To the extent that Kinghorn’s trusted with Scotland’s tactical plan in their toughest away test match in the entirety of 2022.
What’s the motivation, and why now?
Townsend is safe
Two years ago, Townsend couldn’t have made this switch without putting his job under threat. Two successive three-win Six Nations campaigns, including long-awaited wins in London and Paris, solved that.
The removal of Richard Cockerill from Edinburgh last summer – completely the right decision given the team’s results since – took care of the sole, if unlikely, alternative.
There really isn’t anything – even a dreadful run of results – that will mean Townsend is not the head coach at the 2023 World Cup.
This championship is gone, and Scotland were prohibitive underdogs in Dublin no matter who was at 10.
It’s therefore easier to risk this selection and to see what they have in Kinghorn, even against a rampant Ireland.
It might be their only chance to look
— United Rugby Championship (URC) (@URCOfficial) December 3, 2021
You’d have thought the game against Italy was the place to have a look at Kinghorn at 10.
But the player didn’t travel to Italy last week for “personal reasons”. He was not injured.
Might those same reasons count for the proposed tour to South America this summer?
Maybe this is the only chance they have to see Kinghorn in a big international at 10 until the autumn.
It’s a shot across Russell’s bows
— Autumn Nations Series (@autumnnations) November 7, 2021
Townsend said that Russell was disappointed but has put his nose to the grindstone in training since the selection was made.
While he’s still the best 10 Scotland have had in a generation, there’s been a perception that Russell has been less than fully fit in this championship – in conditioning terms rather than injury.
He’s never been the most Stakhanovite of players, but that’s not mattered when he’s played like he did against England.
After his walkout and return in 2020, Russell seemed pretty much unassailable as well. This is maybe a reminder to him that he’s not.