RWC23: Scotland v Tonga: 15 is the magic number for Blair Kinghorn

Versatility can be a blessing or a curse for talented backs

Blair Kinghorn carries for Scotland in their World Cup opener against South Africa in Marseille. Image: © Craig Watson -
Blair Kinghorn carries for Scotland in their World Cup opener against South Africa in Marseille. Image: © Craig Watson -

DURING his early to mid teens, Blair Kinghorn was involved in the youth development programme at Hearts football club, but given that he is at his second World Cup and bearing down on his 50th cap (he will reach 48 if he plays against Tonga on Sunday) when still only 26, it is safe to say he has not had too much time to pause and reflect on whether choosing to focus on rugby was the right move.

“I don’t think I was actually that good at football,” he smiles. “I was just a big lump at the back who was pretty fast and could header the ball. So far it’s been a good decision but we’ll never know for sure [how it would have turned out].

“My favourite player growing up was Rudi Skacel. I remember me and my dad going to the [2006] Scottish Cup final when they beat Gretna at Hampden which was a good day out. Gretna aren’t a team any more – but I was still there and they won. I’ve not been in years. My dad’s side of the family are mad Jambos so I should maybe try to go with them.”

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This is not to say it has been all plain sailing in rugby for the leggy utility-back, who was identified as a player of precocious potential when signed for Edinburgh on a full-time contract straight out of school in 2015, but has flitted between wing, stand-off and full-back at both club and international level without really managing to make any of those positions his own.

His spell at No 10 during 2022 was particularly problematic, because he ended up shouldering a lot of the responsibility for not being the inimitable Finn Russell, who was out of favour with national head coach Gregor Townsend for a period, meaning that his performances were often subject to an unreasonable level of scrutiny (and criticism).

However, a combination of Russell and Townsend’s improved relationship over the last year and the retirement of long-time Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg at the start of the summer has led to Kinghorn getting an extended run in the No 15 jersey during the lead-up to this World Cup – and he says he is feeling the benefit of having some clarity on his role in the squad, even if there were a few wobbles under the high ball in the opening game of the tournament against South Africa just under a fortnight ago.

“I feel comfortable back there,” he said. “I’ve got the ability to cover stand-off if needed but I feel like full-back is my best suited position at the moment, and I feel like that’s where I can offer the team my strengths.

“I feel like there’s been a different focus this pre-season, coming into the World Cup feeling like I can grab a starting jersey, and being able to start at 15 is something I don’t want to let go of and something I don’t take lightly. Every day is about trying to get better and hold on to that jersey.

“Now that I’ve had the opportunity to start at 15 the last game, and a couple of the warm-up games, it’s been really exciting for me. There’s still a lot of competition in our squad for that jersey, everyone is pushing each other, so I’ve just got to keep training well and playing well, if selected, and hopefully I can hang on to it for a while longer.

“If you look at the bench we had at the South Africa game, I would have been covering stand-off had Finn gone down. So we rotate in training and I jump in at 10 every so often.”

Hogg was in Marseilles two weekends ago doing media for the Scotland versus South Africa match, but Kinghorn did not use that as an opportunity to pick the Test centurions brains.

“Obviously he was a world-class player so over the last five years since I’ve been in camp I’ve been picking up little bits of knowledge here and there but I’m looking to put my own game into that 15 jersey,” he’ said. “A lot of players play in different styles and I think me and Hoggy have contrasting styles in certain ways and I’ll be looking to put my own stamp on the position.”

Kinghorn added that he thinks he now has a level of maturity which he hopes can help him stay ahead of main rival Ollie Smith for possession of the dark blue No 15 jersey.

“I was inexperienced and quite young when I came to my first World Cup. You grow and mature into these situations, and you realise how hard it is to stay at the top of your game for an entire pre-season and World Cup,” he reasoned.

“You’ve got to take your preparation and your recovery seriously. I think when you’re younger you’re a bit naive to how much work it actually takes so I feel like I’m a more mature player who has definitely dealt with a bit more life experience within rugby and I can handle situations a bit better.

“I feel like a lot of the younger players coming through now are more mature than when we were coming up just with the game turning more professional,” he added.

Patience is a virtue

Scotland failed to score a try in their 18-3 loss to South Africa on the opening weekend of this World Cup, which was the first time they have not crossed the whitewash since November 2020 and their lowest score in a single match since they were hammered 27-3 by Ireland in the opening game of the 1019 tournament. Kinghorn reckons the team’s big lesson from their South African experience is the importance of not letting frustration cloud their judgement.

“We changed our strategy a little bit and they adapted to that better than we did,” he said. “South Africa come with an enormous amount of line-speed and we were maybe a little bit too flat and were getting hit man and ball. There were a lot of errors in that game and we couldn’t really string together our phases. We pride ourselves on being able to go deep into phase count and that’s when we’ll really hurt teams but it didn’t happen against South Africa.

“When we did our review, we talked a lot about frustration but it’s all about how you bounce back from frustration in a game. You can’t be frustrated for 80 minutes because it means you are not concentrating on the job in hand. We’ve had a good look at ourselves and our mindset if things aren’t going our way and how we then reset and get back to it.

“I certainly felt a little bit frustrated but those are the types of games in which that can happen so it’s about taking yourself back to the present and focusing.”

If Scotland manage to win their three remaining pool games against Tonga on Sunday night, Romania the following Saturday and Ireland the Saturday after that, and Ireland beat South Africa on Saturday night, then qualification from this pool could well become a points race. But Kinghorn insisted that this would not be a factor in how the team approach any of their remaining matches.

“There will be opportunities against Tonga but we’re not looking too much at the bigger picture,” he said. “Mainly we’re just focused on winning, because we know that if we attack as well as we can then the points will come.

“It’ll certainly be spoken about closer to the game or during half-time but I think the emphasis will be on sticking to our structures and being patient.

“It’s massive that we get our attacking clicking again because we were disappointed with the way we attacked against South Africa. We know how good our attack can be so it’s just about putting that on to the pitch and we’re confident we can do it.”

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About David Barnes 3816 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.