Scotland summer tour 2018: Cockerill’s tough love spurred Kinghorn on

21-year-old got a taste of the big time during the Six Nations and is now hungry for more

Blair Kinghorn got his first taste of International rugby during the Six Nations, and is now hungry for more
Blair Kinghorn got his first taste of International rugby during the Six Nations, and is now hungry for more ***Image: ©Fotosport/David Gibson***

AFTER bumpy start to his Edinburgh tenure – which featured Magnus Bradbury stripped of the captaincy after concussing himself in a late night fall and John Hardie suspended for alleged cocaine use – the Richard Cockerill effect really started to kick-in during the weeks leading up to last November’s Autumn Test schedule, with the capital outfit embarking on a five match winning streak against Zebre and London Irish at home, followed by Krasny Yar and Benetton away, and then Ospreys at home again.

Okay, so the calibre of opposition was hardly of a level to strike fear into the heart of any side with serious aspirations of being part of European rugby’s front line, but given where the capital outfit had come from, this was cause for the sort of optimism which would have seemed like wild fantasy during the dog days of the Alan Solomons era.

The team were playing with a joyous swagger and Blair Kinghorn in particular was being hailed as a rising star with the potential to break into the senior Scotland squad before the year was out.

That was the month that was: May 2018

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Richard Cockerill, however, was having none of it. The coach did not doubt his full-back’s potential to play Test rugby at some point in the not too distant future – but he poured cold water all over the prospect of the youngster’s chances of doing so against Samoa, New Zealand or Australia.

“He’s a very good player with a lot of potential, but I think for him to step to the next level he needs to be more consistent at club level, which is not making that blunder once a game which unfortunately he does tend to do,” explained Cockerill at the time.

“It’s obviously frustrating, but you have to understand that young players will make errors and you have to back them and put them back in the team and they have to improve week by week and slowly 
those errors will become less and less.

“In six, eight, ten, 12 months you’d like to think that you will have a more rounded player, as simple as that.”

What a difference a few months makes

Cockerill’s brutal honesty clearly did the trick because just three months later the same man was asserting that Kinghorn, who had just celebrated his 21st birthday, was now ready to play in the Six Nations.

“He’s making good decisions,” the coach said. “Against Stade [in Edinburgh’s previous game], 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 [in the Six Nations opener], 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.”

Baptism of fire

As it happens, Kinghorn didn’t get his chance against Wales, which proved to be a blessing in disguise given how that one went for Scotland. He was then an unused replacement in the victory over France, before his moment finally arrived – and it couldn’t have been a bigger occasion. With 64 minutes played and Scotland leading England 22-13 in the Calcutta Cup at Murrayfield, he took to the field to replace the injured Tommy Seymour on the right wing – where he had played before, but not very often.

Now, that’s pressure!

Kinghorn  used his height to win an up-and-under, made a couple of important tackles, and generally did everything asked of him in that famous victory for the boys in blue, without ever getting chance to stretch his legs with the ball in hand.

A fortnight later, with Seymour not yet recovered, Kinghorn started against Ireland in Dublin. He grabbed a try with an excellent finish and had a couple more positive moments with the ball in hand. He was caught in two minds defending Jacob Stockdale’s second try but, in reality, it would have taken a really exceptional bit of defending to stop that try.

Ultimately, it was a frustrating experience for Scotland, and an object lesson in the importance of being consistently accurate in international rugby.

Error, group does not exist! Check your syntax! (ID: 3)

Kinghorn was, once again, an unused replacement in Scotland’s final Six Nations match against Italy. All of which equates to 84 minutes of international rugby experience from two matches, so it is perhaps too early to make a definitive judgement on whether he has got what it takes to thrive at that level – but the early indications are that he has taken on board that blunt advice meted out by Cockerill last October and made the adjustments required to ensure that he can fulfil his undoubted potential.

“I completely agree with his comments. Cockers isn’t one to beat about the bush and that is great. If you are doing something wrong, he will tell you; and if you are doing something right, he will tell you as well. I feel like it really helped my learning curve last season,” said Kinghorn earlier this week, when asked about that feedback from his club coach.

“If you make a mistake it’s costly, you pay for it. It was a great learning curve. You need experience to grow and I feel like I have done that in the last couple of months.

“I have just worked hard on everything. Certain things just fall into place, but you make more luck if you work harder. The Edinburgh team were going really well at the time, so everything was falling into the right place as a team, and individually you can feed off that.”

Making his own luck

The key for Kinghorn was in finding a balance between playing his natural free-wheeling game and being able to batten down the hatches when the storm clouds are gathering.

“I feel that mistakes are part of the game … that’s just part of life. I have just been working much harder, whether that be on my individual skills throughout the week or doing extra reviewing or what attacks are going to throw at us. But I never want to second guess my instincts, so if I feel like it’s the right decision I am going to do it. If you are going to do something do it 100 per cent.”

American Dreams

Kinghorn looks certain to pick up some more game time for Scotland against Canada, the USA and Argentina over the coming three Saturdays. As momentum builds towards next year’s World Cup in Japan, he is one of a raft of players with a big opportunity to state their case during this month’s tour of the Americas.

“That’s the end goal: everything’s building towards the World Cup. If I do get an opportunity to play [on this tour], I’ll just try and put my best foot forward, so fingers crossed I can keep training well and playing well, and you never know what can happen,” he said.

Kinghorn might have come through the ranks as a stand-off and established himself in the professional game as a full-back, but with Stuart Hogg one of a small and diminishing number of senior players on this trip, it seems likely that his best chance of establishing himself as a regular starter will be as a winger.

“Wherever Gregor picks me I will play. I am not that bothered. If that is on the wing, at fullback, on the bench or not involved. I will keep working hard and see what happens,” he concluded.

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About David Barnes 4028 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The 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.