BARELY three months ago, Richard Cockerill insisted that Blair Kinghorn was far too error-prone to merit inclusion in the Scotland squad for the Autumn Tests. Now, after a spell in which the full-back has been an increasingly influential member of an Edinburgh side that has won 10 of its last dozen games, the head coach is confident that Kinghorn is ready.
Stuart Hogg is due to be back from injury in time for the Six Nations Championship, which begins on the first weekend of next month with a match against Wales in Cardiff. But Cockerill is sure that his own player can step into the breach should Hogg’s recovery be delayed, and also thinks that, even if Hogg does return to the No 15 jersey, Kinghorn should be considered on the wing.
“I think Blair has probably been our most improved player,” Cockerill said yesterday as his team prepared for Friday’s Challenge Cup match against Stade Francais. “He has matured very well, played very well and did really well with ball in hand. He’s not making that one horrific error every game that’s costly. If it’s costly for us can you imagine what it would be like at Test level?
“Personally, I think Blair is good enough to go and play Test rugby now, because of the way he’s matured in the last 12 weeks. If Hogg’s not fit, my opinion is that he’s ready to play full-back for Scotland for sure.
“He has the ability to play full-back and potentially play on the wing, because he’s young, very quick and creates opportunities. He’ll only get better the more he plays.”
According to the coach, Kinghorn, who turns 21 next week, has not only improved his performances on the field, but also matured as an individual. His more responsible approach has ensured he plays with greater consistency, and that in turn has helped Edinburgh achieve significantly better results than they did last season.
“He realises he’s an important part of the team, and we’ve had a few good discussions around him just taking things a bit more seriously,” Cockerill continued. “At his age he’s not young any more. For me young in rugby is 17,18, not 21.
“If he knuckles down and works hard, the opportunities with Scotland and with ourselves are going to be there. I think he’s been pretty much our form player and has been very consistent. We’re a different attacking threat for us when he is on the field. He’s been exceptional, hasn’t he? No getting away from that.”
If Hogg is not passed fit for the trip to Cardiff, Scotland coach Gregor Townsend appears more likely to turn to Ruaridh Jackson, who has himself been extremely consistent while deputising for his Glasgow Warriors team-mate. But from Kinghorn’s point of view it is certainly preferable to have your coach saying you are ready for Test rugby rather than insisting that you are not. The wider Scotland squad for the tournament is due to be announced next week, and depending on what size it is, Kinghorn’s inclusion would be no great surprise.
The same goes for Murray McCallum, the Edinburgh prop who has played on both sides of the front row over the past couple of months but is now staking a claim for a place at tighthead. The experienced Newcastle man Jon Welsh is favourite for the No 3 jersey, but with Zander Fagerson and WP Nel injured and Simon Berghan suspended for the Wales game, Cockerill thinks McCallum is in with a shout of a place on the bench – even if his call-up would further reduce Edinburgh’s options in a position where they are already short of options.
“I would like to develop him as a tighthead,” the coach said of McCallum. “That’s where he sees himself. I thought he did well at the weekend. So did [Samoan international loosehead] Jordan Lay, but Murray on the tighthead, against a very big pack in those conditions, especially after a couple of tough weeks against Glasgow, did really well. It was unfortunate for us he may have even thrown his hat in the ring for the Scotland squad, which would be royally disappointing . . . . “
While Rory Sutherland should be back in action this weekend, Edinburgh will still have three other looseheads on the injury list – Allan Dell, Darryl Marfo and Alasdair Dickinson. Dell is due back by the end of next month, while long-term absentee Dickinson is “rehabbing well” according to the coach, although no date has been set for his return. Marfo, meanwhile, saw a specialist yesterday (Monday) about his disc problems and does not yet know how long he will be sidelined for.
“It’s frustrating, but we’ll get him back on the field – but at this point it doesn’t look like it will be in the next couple of weeks,” Cockerill added. “Surgery is always the last resort for any injury. We’re just seeing how that settles.”