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Scotland's 6'5" replacement for Hogg

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Scotland's 6 foot 5 inch replacement for Stuart Hogg

Blair Kinghorn is too modest to admit it and too wary of being labelled presumptuous to say more than a few reverential words about it, but behind his eyes, the Scotland full-back jersey must be looming like the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

“I’ve not thought too much about it,” he says, with a shake of the head that is anything but convincing.
“There are lots of talented back-three players here,” he adds.

“Anyone can slot into that 15 role,” he insists.

The truth is that while Gregor Townsend has a penchant for the unexpected, it would be a colossal shock if anyone but Kinghorn is the starting 15 in Cardiff in five days time.

There’s no Stuart Hogg, of course, the wonderful lynchpin of the Scottish backline recovering from ankle surgery. Ruaridh Jackson isn’t in the squad. Byron McGuigan and Sean Maitland are but as this first autumn Test falls outside the international window, their English clubs have no obligation to release them. Even were they available, Kinghorn would still be the overwhelming front-runner.

Tommy Seymour is in the hunt too, but even allowing for his fine showing in the role during Glasgow’s ruthless dismantling of Cardiff Blues, he doesn’t usurp Kinghorn. Dave Rennie, Seymour’s club coach, said as much last week. Seymour is an option for Townsend, but Kinghorn has the strongest case.

The gangling 21-year-old has a boat-load of qualities to admire. Last season, he came of age at Richard Cockerill’s Edinburgh, emerging as one of the most devastating strike-runners in the Pro14 at 6’5 and 95kg.

His ability to lope into the line from deep, gallop through holes and free a snaking arm for an off-load is precious. With that long frame and searing speed, he is an excellent finisher. He made more metres than any other player in the league last year, and was near the top of the charts for carries, defenders beaten, clean breaks and off-loads. He is up there in all those ranking tables again six rounds into the new season.

Kinghorn won his first cap off the bench in Scotland’s rousing Calcutta Cup triumph and scored a fine try against Ireland in his first start the following round, playing on the wing.

He toured the Americas in the summer, starting the perfunctory win over Canada at full-back, the bruising loss to the USA and the walloping Townsend’s troops dealt Argentina on either wing, touching down twice more. All in all, a brilliant break-out season.

“It’s definitely a pretty big jump up [from club to international rugby], although when you play the big games in the Champions Cup the physicality is right up there,” Kinghorn says.

“The difference I’ve found is the pace of international rugby being much quicker. Everyone is at the top of their game.

“It’s just about getting used to playing in front of that many people. At club level, you’re playing in front of 7-10,000, whereas at the Aviva Stadium and Murrayfield, it’s packed full.

“I was really nervous before my first cap, so it’s about getting in your own zone. One thing that sticks in my mind is sitting in the changing room beforehand and Greig Laidlaw coming over to say, ‘just do your thing’.”

Kinghorn’s game is mighty impressive, but if there is a chink in his armour, it is his one-on-one defence. The ease with which Benjamin Fall, Craig Gilroy and George North have waltzed through his arms over the past two months is enough to set alarm bells ringing.

Sure, these are world-class attackers we’re talking about, but if you want to be an international regular, you have to put world-class attackers on their backsides.

“I’m getting better; my form is getting closer to where it needs to be. In the first couple of games of the season, I was a bit off the pace, but the Edinburgh team are functioning really well at the minute and I’m just happy to be part of it,” Kinghorn says.

“Coming back in after two months away from rugby, your game sharpness does go a little bit and it takes a couple of games to get back into it.

“I feel like a big work-on at the moment is my defence and I’ve been working really hard with our defence coach, Calum MacRae.

“The main point I’ve been given is to work hard on all my little skills. At the start of last season, it was basic mistakes that were letting me down, letting the team down. Whether it was kicking, a couple of passes or my tackling. I’ve been working on my basic skills week in week out, so that under pressure I can perform.

“Mistakes are always part of the game. When you’re going with your instinct, sometimes you do make mistakes. That’s life, you’re human, everyone does that. It’s more about not making unforced errors. I’ve worked really hard at it, with all the coaches at Edinburgh, and also on my concentration throughout the whole week.”

Kinghorn didn’t play in Scotland’s Six Nations humiliation in Cardiff back in February, but he was there. As the 24th man, he took part in the warm-up, drinking in the sights and sounds of a Championship battle. He sat in the stand enveloped in his tracksuit, deafened by the joyous roars of Welsh revellers. He watched in horror as his team-mates were battered and bamboozled, the wave of hope they had ridden into the campaign utterly shredded in 80 brutal minutes.

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“I was rooming with Henry Pyrgos, who was the 25th man,” he recalls.

“It was a brilliant experience, my first taste of being 24th man in an away game. Obviously it was a really disappointing result but a good experience to be in with the team, doing the warm-up, and seeing what it’s like on match-day in an international set-up.

“It wasn’t the result we were looking for. We had a hard look at it, reviewed it and realised we just didn’t play the way we wanted to play. We’re looking to put the wrongs right when we go down there now.

“Once the roof’s shut, it’s a pretty intimidating place to go. It’s a great stadium, the noise is unbelievable and the atmosphere is brilliant. It is places like that you want to go and play rugby. When we went to Thomond Park with Edinburgh it was brilliant – it’s a cauldron, a tough place to go, but that’s where you want to go and challenge yourself as a team.

“At the Principality, you try to talk to people in the warm-up and you can’t really hear them. It’s a brilliant atmosphere, they always get a great crowd in there and the noise is always right at the top.”

Kinghorn is right, Scotland have demons to banish and a dragon to slay this weekend, but he has his own challenges to confront. The November period is his best opportunity to further outline his international credentials.

Unseating a fit Hogg will be a mountainous undertaking. A slot on the wing looks a more likely long-term option. Townsend has a bucketful of excellent back-three competitors but if Kinghorn’s rise continues at this rate, he will be extremely hard to leave

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Scotland's 6 foot 5 inch replacement for Stuart Hogg