THE decision to select Blair Kinghorn ahead of Finn Russell in the crucial slot of Saturday’s Six Nations Championship clash chasing Ireland into their own backyard is almost certainly the biggest roll of the dice in a coaching career heavily punctuated by pick bets – but Gregor Townsend made a good enough punch to present it as a routine call as he considered the game earlier today [Thursday].
The Scottish coach replaced a British and Irish Lion with eight years of international experience in the key playmaking role, with someone who played almost all of his rugby in the back three after leaving school in 2015 to the “Blair Switch Project”. was initiated towards the end of last season, and has since started 11 games for club and country in that role.
“We think it’s the right time for the team and for Blair,” said the coach, who confirmed the 25-year-old would also take on kicking duties. “He reminded us a few weeks ago what he can do [playing for Edinburgh] against Connacht and he came off the bench [for Scotland] and did very well against Wales.
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“Each selection is an opportunity, there is no exact science behind it. What you think is fair is based on what you’ve seen of the players in training and in games, as well as the opposition that comes up. We know that Blair has done very well, that he deserves this opportunity and that the way we plan to play suits Blair’s strengths.
While Russell has struggled to reach his best form during this Six Nations campaign, he is a proven match winner and his performances haven’t been as bad as some of his critics – who find it hard to accept his diabolical approach to gaming/life – would have us believe.
Indeed, Townsend pointed out that this selection call is linked to his faith in Kinghorn, rather than a desire to oust Russell, with whom he has a tumultuous history.
“The form of players goes up and down – the form of teams goes up and down – a lot depends on the circumstances,” he explained. “Were you able to get into the game? Were you able to bring out your strengths? But that doesn’t concern me.
“What we see in training is the consistent ability of our players, in this case Finn and the quality of his training. If you are diligent and professional you will be rewarded for that, even if a game or aspect of a game does not suit you.
“The conversation went well,” Townsend replied, when asked how Russell reacted to the news of his demotion. “Any conversation you have with someone that doesn’t start, they’re disappointed first, but they support the team and Finn will support Blair, support the rest [of the team]and he did [that] this week.
“I prefer to focus on what Blair has done and how well he has 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 in preparation for the next World Cup, but Townsend played down the idea that Kinghorn wearing the No 10 this weekend is linked to the depth of construction ahead of next year’s jamboree in France. .
“I’m not sure I would say it’s about wanting to see him tested, I’m looking at him more in terms of what he can do to help us win,” he said. “The more I’ve seen him play and train, the more I’m encouraged by him in this 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 the ball in hand and such a good passer, sometimes he gets the balance too much passing rather than running but I felt in the last game he played against Connacht he l did very well. He was a threat himself, he put others in space and he hit well too. He moves well between phases – he places himself well where space might appear on defense.
“You have to reward that if you think it will help the team. We are obviously well aware that we have someone with real experience on the bench who can add or change our game if asked.
It’s curious that Kinghorn’s return to deadlock – where he played his schoolboy rugby – comes almost seven years after signing his first professional contract.
“Well, he obviously had to play there more regularly and that 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 haven’t seen him much there, but if a team has gone from scoring very few tries, definitely not a goal. registering bonus points, consistently scoring tries and winning games, then a lot of it depends on your 10, and what he does to put others in space and make the offense work well. Blair has to take huge credit for that.
“He started for us this season against Tonga, played really well and built on that performance. He wasn’t available for our game last weekend [for ‘personal reasons’]but before that he came off the bench twice for us and showed what he can do in that slot so he’s in really good shape.
“The game has changed too. For me, this position is now about someone who can run with the ball and pass with the ball, rather than what it was like five or ten years ago when it was more about kicking.
“Kicking now is also attacking kicking, putting pressure on teams. You see the top 10 in the world being able to do that, and we’re lucky to have more than Blair able to do it, but Blair’s strength is more suited to the position now.
“Perhaps his age and maturity [has led to this mid-career move]that he is better in this position where you will make more mistakes and where there will be more external and internal pressure on you.
“He was a 10 throughout his career until he moved to 15 and then he was a really good winger for us, so he’s a really impressive and valuable asset to the team that he can play in more than one position.”
The only other change to the starting XV since last weekend’s bonus points win over Italy in Rome concerns the second row, where they are fit again. Johnny Gray replaced the Sam Skinner bench.
“Jonny brings physicality, a huge defensive work rate, ball carrier support in contact and is very strong in contact himself,” Townsend said. “These are areas where we have to do well this weekend if we want to be able to win.
“Every game is different, but Ireland will pose similar threats in the areas where they have always been strong – in contact, the ability to go through phases, their set pieces, their kicking and through individuals she has on the team.
“But they also have a more ambitious way of playing now, which means more threats to our defense but also more opportunities, depending on how good our defense is.”
Ireland – Scotland: Blair Kinghorn replaces Finn Russell in the showdown