THE decision to select Blair Kinghorn ahead of Finn Russell in the crucial stand-off slot for Saturday’s Six Nations clash against championship chasing Ireland in their own backyard is almost certainly the biggest dice roll in a coaching career heavily punctuated with selection gambles – but Gregor Townsend made a pretty good fist of presenting it as a routine call as he looked ahead to the match earlier today [Thursday].
The Scotland coach has replaced a British and Irish Lion with eight years’ worth of international experience in the key playmaker role, with someone who played almost all of his rugby in the back-three after leaving school in 2015 until the ‘Blair Switch Project’ was initiated towards the tail-end of last season, and who has since started 11 games for club and country in that role.
“We believe it’s the right time for the team and for Blair,” said the coach, who confirmed that the 25-year-old will also take over place-kicking duties. “He reminded us a couple of weeks ago of what he can do [playing for Edinburgh] against Connacht and he came off the bench [for Scotland] and did really well against Wales.
“Every selection is an opportunity, there’s no exact science behind it. What you feel is right is based on what you’ve seen from players in training and in games, and also the opposition that’s coming up. We know Blair has done really well, deserves this opportunity, and the way we’re looking to play the game suits Blair’s strengths.”
While Russell has struggled to hit his best form during this Six Nations campaign, he is a proven match winner and his performances have not been anywhere near as bad as some of his critics – who struggle to accept his devil-may-care approach to the game/life – would have us believe.
Indeed, Townsend stressed that this selection call is related to his faith in Kinghorn, rather than a desire to squeeze out Russell, with whom he has a tempestuous history.
“Players’ form goes up and down – teams’ form goes up and down – a lot of it is down to circumstances,’ he reasoned. “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.
“The conversation went okay, fine,” Townsend replied, when asked how Russell had reacted to news of his demotion. “Any conversation you have with someone who is not starting, they’re initially disappointed, but they support the team and Finn will support Blair, support the rest [of the team], and he has done [that] this week.
“I prefer to focus on what Blair has done and how well he’s played and deserved this opportunity, which he certainly has in his performances throughout this season.”
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The reality of modern international rugby is that every team operates on a four-year cycle building towards the next World Cup, but Townsend played down the idea that Kinghorn wearing the No 10 this weekend is related to building depth ahead of next year’s jamboree in France.
“I’m not sure I would phrase it as being about wanting to see him tested, I look at it more in terms of what can he do to help us win,” he said. “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 played against Connacht he did that really well. He was a threat himself, he put others in space, and he kicked well, too. He moves well between phases – he sets himself well where the space might appear in defence.
“You’ve got to reward that if you feel it will help the team. We are obviously well aware that we have someone with real experience on the bench who can add to or change our game if called upon.”
It is curious that Kinghorn’s switch back to stand-off – where he played his schoolboy rugby – is happening nearly seven years after he signed his first pro contract.
“Well, he obviously had to be playing there more regularly and that’s happened this year [with Edinburgh],” said Townsend, when asked when this became a serious consideration. “I know people might not see Blair as a 10 because they’ve not seen him there much, but if a team has gone from scoring hardly any tries, certainly not recording bonus points, to regularly scoring tries and winning games, then a lot of that is down to your 10, and what he’s doing to put others into space and to make the attack function well. Blair has to take massive credit for that.
“He started for us this season against Tonga, played really well, and he’s built on that performance. He wasn’t available for our match last weekend [for ‘personal reasons’], but prior to that he’s come off the bench twice for us and shown what he can do in that slot, so he’s in really good form.
“The game has 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. You see the best 10s in the world being able to do that, and we’re fortunate that we have more than just Blair able to do that, but Blair’s strength are more suited to the position now.
“Possibly his age and his maturity [has led to this mid-career move], that he’s better at being in that position where you are going to make more mistakes and there is going to be more external and internal pressure on you.
“He was a 10 throughout his career until he got moved to 15, and then he was a very good wing for us, so it is a really impressive and valuable asset for the team that he’s able to play more than one position.”
The only other change to the starting XV from last weekend’s bonus point win over Italy in Rome is in the second-row, where fit again Jonny Gray has replaced the benched Sam Skinner.
“Jonny brings physicality, huge work-rate defensively, support of the ball carrier in contact, and is very strong in contact himself,” said Townsend. “Those are areas we need to do well this weekend if we are going to be in a position to win.
“Every game is different, but 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 they also have a more ambitious way of playing now, which means more threats to our defence but also more opportunities, depending on how well we defend.”