PRESUMING the Scotland squad to be announced on Tuesday had not been finalised beforehand, Edinburgh’s match against Stade Francais on Friday was the last chance for several players to persuade Gregor Townsend that they merited inclusion. The overall performance in the 34-33 Challenge Cup win may have fallen some way short of perfection, but the national coach must surely have been impressed by the strength of character shown by Richard Cockerill’s squad.
Stade Francais were the superior side for much of the game, especially physically, yet time after time Edinburgh summoned up the determination first to get back into the game and then to snatch the victory that has given them a home quarter-final. Nathan Fowles, for one, did his cause some good, injecting some extra tempo into the game after coming off the bench and then laying on the deciding score for Junior Rasolea – before, admittedly, almost throwing the game away with an ill-judged kick straight to the opposition. The most intriguing case, however, is that of Blair Kinghorn, whose conversion of the centre’s try was the final word in a seesaw contest.
Fowles and many other members of the Edinburgh side have been in Scotland squads before, and in that sense might be regarded as ahead of Kinghorn in the race for a Six Nations place. But there is little doubt that the full-back is the brightest prospect of all.
After insisting before the Autumn Tests that Kinghorn was too error-prone to be ready for a call-up to the senior squad, Cockerill said early last week that the player had made such progress that he was now ready. On Friday night he reiterated that opinion, praising the 20-year-old’s ability to learn quickly.
“He’s making good decisions,” the coach said. “Against Stade, he wasn’t making the line breaks he has in the last few weeks because of the opposition, but he was sound under the high ball, he carried hard and looked after the ball and there were no errors in his game.
“For me, that shows he’s maturing, he’s listening and he’s working hard at his game. If that’s in Cardiff against Wales, you’re not making errors and you’re sound, and you’re still a threat with ball in hand, then suddenly it’s different.
“Some people learn quickly and some people learn a bit slower. To be fair to Blair, he’s listened, he’s worked hard and the penny has dropped quicker than it has done before.”
Kinghorn himself has consistently declined to make hopeful statements about his Scotland chances, insisting that he would concentrate on doing his best for Edinburgh and let everything else look after itself. He maintained that policy after the win over Stade, but did accept that harder work in training had paid dividends in better displays in games.
“I’m not sure if any of us have given ourselves a boost [for Scotland],” he said. “I’m just focussing week to week on my stuff. I’m reviewing each week as it comes.
“I’m working harder on all aspects of my game, trying to work out the errors. I’m trying to be a bit more consistent week to week, and hopefully that consistency will keep getting better. I’m really enjoying my rugby at the moment and I just need to keep working hard.”
Kinghorn turns 21 on Thursday, and although a Scotland call-up would doubtless enhance the celebrations, his caution is understandable. Townsend has committed himself to an adventurous style of play, and that may be enough for the Edinburgh full-back to be named in the squad, but there is a big leap from being one of a group of 30 or more to being one of the matchday 23.
With Stuart Hogg probably going into the Wales game after having just one outing since being injured in November, the coach would surely decide that having Kinghorn as the Glasgow player’s only back-up as a specialist 15 would be too big a risk. Ruaridh Jackson, Hogg’s team-mate at Scotstoun, not only has the experience, he has the form too – and indeed, might even be preferred to Hogg if the latter looks lacking in sharpness.
Still, whatever happens on Tuesday and in this year’s Championship, Kinghorn’s time will come. The only real question is when.