OLLIE SMITH (making his Six Nations debut), Blair Kinghorn, Sam Skinner and Hamish Watson have been added to Scotland’s starting XV for their final match of the 2023 Six Nations campaign against Italy on Saturday lunchtime.
Meanwhile, Irish convert Ben Healy is set to make his debut off the bench, which also features Ewan Ashman, Rory Sutherland and Cam Redpath for the first time in this championship.
Matt Fagerson drops to the bench, while Richie Gray (who popped a rib against Ireland last weekend), Finn Russell (knee injury) and Stuart Hogg (ankle injury) are out of the match-day squad altogether.
Head coach Gregor Townsend said he had no concerns about returning Blair Kinghorn to the No 10 jersey, where he played five consecutive Test matches for Scotland between Ireland at the end of the last Six Nations and Australia at the start of the Autumn, before Russell’s return to the fold.
“We see Blair [Kinghorn] as a ten who can play a number of positions,” he explained. “It’s his club position, I know he’s had to play in the back three because of injury at Edinburgh but he’s played there [at stand-off] for the last two seasons.
“He played there for us in last year’s Six Nations, three Tests in the summer and was involved in two Tests in the autumn, one he started and one he came off the bench. He’s trained a lot at ten.
“I believe we’ll see a really confident Blair Kinghorn, someone in very good physical shape. He’s shown that in different positions so far this year, but we’re looking forward to him playing at ten. He’s played some really good games for us in the last 12 months in that position.”
Townsend was equally effusive about Smith coming in at full-back.
“He stepped up in a challenging environment in Argentina, that third Test, [which was a] noisy atmosphere for his first cap and he played really well,” he said. “He played very well against Australia in November, and he’s been unlucky that he’s gone up against our most capped player in our squad in Stuart Hogg, so that’s one reason why he’s not been involved.
“I feel he’s really added to his game this year at Glasgow as well, very good linking ability. He’s had to play wing on a couple of occasions. I believe that he’s got that balance now with his running ability – very evasive and very strong – but also able to put people into space. That’s something that will help those around him.”
The coach also played down the loss of Gray on top of Grant Gilchrist being suspended.
“It’s an opportunity for two experienced players in Sam [Skinner] and Jonny [Gray], and with Scott [Cummings] off the bench we’ve got players who have played a minimum 20 caps,” he said. “Jonny’s on 70-odd  caps, and I think Sam and Scott will be around 20 to 30 [both have been capped 24 times], so we’re fortunate that we have experienced players to step in, but obviously it’s a test for us that our starting locks at the beginning of this championship are not playing this final game.”
Matt Fagerson has been one of Scotland’s most industrious players during this Six Nations, with his 70 tackles more than any other player in the championship, but Townsend believes that Watson at openside and captain Jamie Ritchie returning too blindside is the right fit for this match.
“Obviously Matt has played every game, so it’s about managing his energy, and we still feel he’ll have a big impact off the bench,” said Townsend. “But also we feel that Hamish has deserved the opportunity to start and hopefully this time stay on longer than he did in Paris.
“He’s a really experienced player and we think he can help Jamie a lot with sharing that leadership, but he’s [also] playing with pace and we’ll need pace this weekend in attack and defence.
“He was really disappointed not to be selected last weekend against Ireland, and I felt when he came on he had a good carry and had some defensive work to do. By the time he came on, it was tough for the team to go and win that game, but he showed really good attitude.”
Sione Tuipulotu has been named as vice-captain. “He’s grown as a player,” said Townsend of the Australian-born centre, whose younger brother Mosese is now being linked with a move to Scotland. “He’s shown a real strong defensive side to his game. We always believed he would be a creative player having watched him closely in Australia and Japan. He’s obviously got a very good carrying game, but I think his all-round game now – in defence, attack and kicking – he’s shown he is someone who has worked on his game and thinks a lot about it.
“He’s very well respected from the group, he leads a lot of our defence meetings and talks really well, but he’s also got a big role to play in attack. He was vice-captain when we played Chile in the summer, he’s captained Glasgow, so he’s already had that leadership experience.”
Meanwhile, Italian coach Kieran Crowley has also made four changes to the team he sent out against Wales last weekend for this match.
Simone Gesi will make his debut on the left wing with Edoardo Padovani missing out, Alessandro Fusco is promoted from the bench to starting scrum-half in place of Stephen Varney, Marco Riccioni comes in at tight-head prop and Edoardo Iachizzi is added to the second-row.
Former Edinburgh man Pietro Ceccarelli is the replacement tighthead. The other bench changes are the uncapped Marco Manfredi covering hooker ahead of Luca Bigi, and Alessandro Garbisi covering scrum-half.
Scotland (v Italy at Marrayfield, in Edinburgh, Saturday @ 12.30pm): O Smith; K Steyn, H Jones, S Tuipulotu, D van der Merwe; B Kinghorn, B White; P Schoeman, G Turner, Z Fagerson, S Skinner, J Gray (VC), J Ritchie©, H Watson, J Dempsey. Substitutes: E Ashman, R Sutherland, W Nel, S Cummings, M Fagerson, A Price, B Healy, C Redpath.
Italy: T Allan; P Bruno, J Brex, T Menoncello, S Gesi; P Garbisi, A Fusco; D Fischetti, G Nicotera, M Riccioni, E Iachizzi, F Ruzza, S Negri, M Lamaro©, L Cannone. Substitutes: M Manfredi, F Zani, P Ceccarelli, N Cannone, G Pettinelli, M Zuliani, A Garbisi, L Morisi.