Ireland v Scotland: Townsend gambles on the ‘Blair Switch Project’

Scotland head coach says he is rewarding form with selection for final match of this Six Nations campaign

Blair Kinghorn wore the 10 jersey for Scotland against Tonga last October. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Blair Kinghorn wore the 10 jersey for Scotland against Tonga last October. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

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.


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“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.”


Ireland v Scotland: Blair Kinghorn replaces Finn Russell at stand-off

About David Barnes 2991 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including he Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.

33 Comments

  1. Is there a long-term plan. The key question. International side lacking in 2nd row depth and the centre paring needs to be more offensively aligned. Worry is the pipeline – U20s have gone backwards and there is no clear structure or transparency on the future of rugby in Scotland. Is the vision another pro- team? or a super 8 structure? Is it a difficult as for some transparency from the SRU now their debt is being positively managed.

  2. Reading both the comment sections on the selection process for the game in Dublin it is to be hoped that the Offsideline is in Purdah for the squad because if I was Kinghorn it wouldn’t be exactly the support that I would want to see: he has the Jersey for the Ireland game and the least we could do is keep quiet till after the game for many reasons, potentially knocking his confidence being a primary one, and you could say the same for Townsend.
    If we do win in Dublin, and any reasonable observer of the game would say we would have to be on the very top of our game for an unexpected result to say the least, does that take criticism away from selection? Actually I don’t think so in some respects, I certainly go along with many comments that have said whether it is Russell or Kinghorn the lack of creativity outside them they are in for a hard day at the Office, as someone else mention Huw Jones out in the wilderness at Quins has been playing well and looked sharp on the excepts I have seen.
    Anyway good luck to the Lads and win lose or draw providing they put in their best efforts against a strongly fancied side that would satisfy me even if it didn’t get me jumping out of the chair.

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    • You’re not Kinghorn and the purpose of a comment section is to offer opinion. To suggest site visitors should constantly tailor their comments just in case a particular player might happen to read it is ridiculous.

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      • Well I accept that is your opinion however I would have hoped most people would have thought about the principle I was attempting to ‘get across’ of getting behind the team regardless of any critique of the selection or the selectors before the fixture has even taken place, and as I attempted to do suggest that rather than denigrate players or selectors get behind the team, but as I said you have your opinion on things and I have mine.

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  3. I like Finn, naturally, but I can see why he would start to grind after a while. I do sometimes wish he was just be a bit more Dan Biggar in terms of the temperament he gives of.

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  4. Worryingly muddled comments from Townsend. He makes no sense, BK is not a good passer (his pass along the ground in the last 10 outing for Scotland was an embarrassment) and I’ve seen nothing to suggest he can control a game with his kicking. To me he looks like he is filling in at 10 for Edinburgh until a real 10 arrives. It’s tough on the guy to step into the this position v Ireland and his selection smacks of punishing Finn when he has had a pack going backwards living off scraps and defensive centres. It’s nonsense. Terrible man management from Townsend.

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  5. “Mike Blair backs Blair Kinghorn to become a “world class” stand-off ”
    This site, 3rd March.

    Russell IS a world class stand-off, but he’s not starting. Hastings is well regarded and experienced, yet he’s hardly had a look in. For whatever reason, our national coach is not selecting his two most experienced players in a pivotal role against an accomplished side in good form. It does not make sense, especially as the player he has chosen is still new to the role. Offering experience as a sub in this championship would be sensible and that may have been denied by “personal reasons” for the trip to Italy, but it is still the sensible option for this remaining fixture. I will cheer my team on, as that’s what we do, but my cheering would be more enthusiastic from the start if the team was a little different.
    I will cheer heartily if Townsend is near the end of his tenure.

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  6. Bottom line is we could have peak-Dan Carter at 10, it won’t make a difference if the forwards don’t build a platform against an extremely good Irish pack

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    • That Ireland pack looked under powered and vulnerable even against a tiring England outfit. They were also monstered by France in Paris, and other than the first 25/30 against Wales, had to slow the tempo their Autumn promised.

      Even at home, they would probably be vulnerable against a team that had a pack that was even remotely competitive.

      The problem for Scotland is that it’s not only about key players being missing. Gray continues not to look match fit when just back from injury, and Gilchrist is honest, but limited. Our bench Front Row is also going to struggle.

      So while our first choice 23 would pressure that Ireland pack. Our selection for this match likely wont.

  7. I trust Townsend will consider his own position – after all as he says form can go up and down – that must include the form of the coach – Townsends selections lack no consistency and are likened to that of a bingo machine
    It’s time to reflect on his contribution – has he taken Scotland as far as he is capable
    If Russell doesn’t get on tomorrow then that is an absolute disgrace – Townsend is robbing Scotland fans of entertainment – I haven’t been over impressed with Hogg – he should be dropped just like all the balls he’ll drop from Sextons bonbardment tomorrow

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    • If something doesn’t happen it will be a total disgrace?

      There’s a word for that sort of argument isn’t there?

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  8. Oh Toony, this is either a masterstroke or he’s losing it. I feel for Kinghorn, he’s not to blame for this but he’ll also carry the can if we get well beaten. One thing, when he clicks for Edinburgh then they click. He’s an average kicker at best but I’ll be getting behind him and the team. Finn needs to fire up and he needs some front foot ball but he’s the best stand off we’ve had for years and somethings broken here. It’s back to watching Scotland games from behind the sofa.

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  9. I really don’t get the 2022 version of Gregor Townsend. All these weaselly words that say nothing meaningful. Sneaky snide remarks about FR. GT is head coach, if he doesn’t like something just change it. No need for his snarky whinges.

    When Russell revolted at that half time at Twickenham (along with others since departed) it demonstrated that the ambition of GT is merely personal, driven by his own ego, not about the team or its performance. Every player will know they are merely his pawns, easily dumped, sh*t upon,humiliated, brought back when desperate. List of names available!

    France, Ireland, NZ have head coaches with clear ambition for their team, giving their players scope to be better, but also have personal humility. Not about me, me,me.

    Oh for the days of Vern. And the days of integrity.

    This dead body of Scottish international rugby is rotting from the head down.

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    • I take it you don’t like Townsend. I’ve never heard so much vitriol on this site largely based on one selection. If we lose which is highly likely then it won’t all be down to the Kinghorn selection and more down to the fact that Ireland are just a bit stronger all round than us. Let’s hope we get a storming display from Scotland and maybe a Kinghorn try.

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      • This is possibly the best crop of players we’ve had for 20 years, unfortunately it is being squandered. It’s hard to fault the players , probably not even BK’s mum would pick him in front of Finn, Hastings or even Thomson! Answer on a postcard if you can explain what our tactical plan is for going forward. Do you think the players know what we are trying to do? Do you think the Toonie Tombola selections aid the morale of the team? Best forward dropped to bench for Gray who hasn’t played in weeks, players brought in given 5 minutes and then dropped out of the squad. Penalty machines continue to be picked in front of solid players , and defensive centres picked yet still we leak tries. That’s not vitriol it’s normally called harsh reality

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  10. “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 ”
    Me thinks Toony is having a dig at Finn here. Has Finn not been breaking enough sweat in training?

  11. So, Scotlands issues are failure to convert possession into points, the to much sidey-sidey coach cant find a centre combo that works with Russel at 10, as we dont have a Fickou …hes tried many centre combos in last and this season as he is mired to Harris outside .. but Harris doesn’t offer enough in attack as he is not quick and hands are mmm, so rather than try a e.g. Johnson- Jones combo or Russel, Harris -Jones, coach cans our one world class player.. fantastic. Plus need to find a forward to Captain the side- Hoggy is too remote from the ref and doesnt get in refs ear.

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  12. Ah so it’s the old chestnut “ he looked good in training!!!” Unfortunately we are not training against the Irish but actually playing them in a match that counts. Not even close to the same thing. And if the plan continues to be kick the ball down the middle of the park and see what happens it could be a complete car crash. After all kick and chase is what the Irish do really well, just cast your mind back to Murrayfield last year, we kicked to them they kicked it back and we dropped the ball or didn’t get within 5 yards of it. The other thing is that the Irish have the best offensive lineout in the world and with Henderson and O’mahoney possibly the best two snafflers of opposition throws, so dropping Skinner for Softy Gray is even more concerning than dropping Finn. Did I say car crash more like 40 car motorway pileup !! We’ll do well to keep the margin below 25!

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    • Tactics seem to have moved a bit this season with the 50 20 thing causing wings to better cover the sidelines and most teams, particularly France opting to boot it down the middle x they have kicked more than any other team this year. The game Scotland chose to kick least in was against France and that did not got too well. It was about that time, that a lot of our other posters started to question/call for Russell’s head hey presto, they have it but are still not happy. I think you may underestimate BK’s mum and she might be rightly proud that he is in the starting line-up. Having watched his Edinburgh outings this year, I’m excited to see if he can bring that game to the six nations. Let’s hope his goal kicking practice bears dividends, as said elsewhere, Chris Paterson was not always a great kicker.
      Fingers crossed for a whopper of a game from No 10. ; )

  13. The SRUs continuing faith in Townsend beggars belief I have season tickets for Edinburgh and I cannot recall BK taking a single kick at goal all season.
    I wish BK well but clearly Townsend has lost the plot. The flailing moves of a coach on his way out.

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  14. Who is kicking for goal? The article confirms it is BK. This is far too much to ask of him. He is not even the club kicker for good reason. If GT had said Hogg It would have been better and given BK a chance to focus on fly-half without this extra pressure. Still I seem to remember Chris Paterson being unable to hit a barn door when he started kicking but he learn quickly.

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  15. “He was a 10 throughout his career until he got moved to 15”

    As the article states, he has played almost all his rugby since leaving school in the back three…… Townsend has lost it. How can ya have a career while still at school, surely schoolboy rugby cannot be classed as a career.

    Clearly something not right in camp, Finn seemed to be annoyed and moaning to price when Hastings came on n just ignored his advice with a flippant thumbs up n half glance to the side, and Hogg moaning at Steyn “oh come on” after throwing a pass behind him, which was the 3rd loose or forced pass to nobody in a 5-10 min spell.

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  16. Bollocks!
    He’s a Scottish prem player at best.
    Classic acadamy product. Vindicating their shite system.
    There are a number of young Scottish players in English National One that are miles better than players in “the system” but nobody in the SRU are interested in watching them.
    It’s Scottish rugby’s shame because they weren’t in their system. F***ing joke.
    If an English league one side, with young Scottish talent, played a super six team, they would win by 20+ points, at least. And the league is full of young Scottish talent that no one is watching. Shame on Scottish rugby.
    But as long as the SRU pay non Scottish players then all is well??
    To finish! Hogg is the worst 15 in the six nations, but no criticism is allowed. His PR TEAM have done a great job. Crap tackler, crap under the high ball, hardly ever beats the first man, can kick a mile but hardly ever does. And makes at least two major mistakes every game.
    As long as murrayfield is packed full of people that know F all about rugby, the SRU will get away with it.

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    • Who are these young Scottish players in English National One that are better than those in ‘the system’? Names please…we need knowledge of any Scottish Qualified players who have potential. Remember, Henry Pyrgos (Loughborough) Ali Price (Bedford) Ryan Wilson, and Chris Harris have all been identified playing at that kind of level in the past and gone on to be full internationals, so promote those playing at that level now

    • What a pile of nonsense.

      Scottish club sides defeat English Prem sides as often as they don’t these days.

      Although I notice from your ‘Hogg makes two major mistakes every game’, you’re a big Shane Horgan fan. So I think I’ll just laugh rather than point out how ludicrous your opinions are.

      Say hi to Shane for me. He was nothing but an average player who hid behind more talented team mates.

    • This attack on Hogg is a disgrace tbh. You have a very short memory clearly, he has been the best Scotland player of the 21st century. Ok a couple of high proile gaffs against Ireland and France in recent times, but your criticism is way way off the mark

  17. You have got to be having a laugh!!
    Kinghorn would be, on a good day, a Scottish prem 10. He is a classic SRU acadamy product. Fin plays week in week out with the Harlem Globe Trotters.
    Townsend pairs him with the worst creativity centre partnership in the six nations, then holds him responsible for nothing happening.
    Hogg is the worst 15 in the tournament but seems to be above any criticism.
    There are better Scottish players in English National league one every week than anyone knows about, and no one connected to Scottish rugby ever looks at them.
    If an English league one side played a super six team, they would beat them by 20+ points, and yet all the Scottish boys in that league are ignored.
    Shame on Scottish rugby!!

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    • I suspect many people are having a laugh Andymckangry. After all you are providing much to laugh at alongside your abuse.

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  18. Well I hope BK has the game of his life and vindicates Townsend’s faith in him, he’s a very talented player if not my choice at 10. I do get a creeping sense that Townsend might be losing the plot a bit though.

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    • Gosh! A balanced comment. I guess you are the only one on here who didn’t have a bowl of spite for breakfast.

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