Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill has been convinced in the past few months that young full-back Blair Kinghorn is now ready to play for Scotland.
With the Six Nations opener in Cardiff approaching fast on February 3, and star man Stuart Hogg still to play since injuring his hip during the November Tests, Cockerill has revisited his opinion in the autumn that the youngster, who turns 21 next Thursday, was too raw to have his fragile, though undoubted, talent tested at the highest level of the game. After playing a key role in Edinburgh’s run of ten wins in 12 games, Kinghorn has done enough to alter his boss’s opinion.
“Blair has been our most improved player,” said Cockerill. “He has matured very well, played very well and done really well with ball in hand. He is not making that one horrific error every game that’s is costly. If it is costly for us can you imagine what it would be like at Test level?
“I think Blair is good enough to play Test rugby now because of the way he has matured in the past 12 weeks. If Hogg’s is not fit my opinion is that he is ready to play full-back for Scotland for sure. He has the potential to play full-back and, if not, on the wing because he is young, very quick and creates opportunities. He will only get better the more he plays.”
While every Scotland fan is praying that Hogg can get back on the field soon and be firing on all cylinders for a crack at the Welsh, nerves are jangling as the Six Nations creep ever closer. Kinghorn didn’t make the national squad in the autumn but would be a good bet this time, even if Hogg is fit. Other leading contenders for the No.15 jersey would be Ruaridh Jackson or Sean Maitland, who could move in from the wing.
The more pressing concern for Scotland at present is in the front row and Cockerill revealed that loosehead Darryl Marfo, who stepped up so well during the autumn, was seeing a specialist for his back problem and it looks like he is unlikely to feature for the opening rounds of the Six Nations.
“Darryl has not played since the autumn. His last game was Australia,” said the coach. “He has a slight disc issue in his back which is giving him some neurology down his legs. That’s settling slowly but it is not happening as quickly as we would have liked.”
Cockerill added that loosehead Rory Sutherland will feature in Friday’s European Challenge Cup crunch against Stade Francais at Myreside, where anything more than a point would secure a home quarter-final, Allan Dell should be back playing by late February and that he was “hoping” veteran Al Dickinson would play again after a long-term injury.
The former England hooker said that the current front-row crisis afflicting Scotland was more down to bad luck than a suggestion of a wider problem in the physical intensity of the modern game.
“It is bad luck to have multiple injuries in so many positions,” he said. “For WP [Nel] to break his arm of all the people; [Simon] Berghan to get suspended for foul play which is unheard of for him, and the other tighthead [Glasgow’s Zander Fagerson] dropping a bench on his foot. . . There has been some bad luck there with Dell, Dickinson, Marfo Sutherland. That is a lot of props injured. We have seven props missing ourselves.”
Cockerill’s mind is solely focused on Friday’s big European match after the win over the Southern Kings took his men to within three points of the top three in their Pro14 conference. “We’ve got an opportunity to secure a home quarter-final, so that will be our objective going into the game to make sure we get the job done,” he said.
“I don’t think we’re a team that can prioritise anything at the moment, we’ve just got to keep playing as well as we can and go as far as we can in any competition we’re in.”
Holders Stade haven’t put up much of a defence of their trophy but Cockerill said his side can only focus on themselves.
“That’ll have to be the case. Stade have had a mixed season domestically,” he said. “Looking at the [French] Top 14 they’re fourth from bottom and the two sides below them, Agen and Brive, won at the weekend, so it only takes one win for them and a loss for Stade and they’ll go into the bottom two, so clearly a priority for them.
“But they’re a good squad and the reality is that whoever they pick are good enough to come and beat us if they put their minds to it, although we fancy ourselves that if we get it right and we’ve got a strong team to pick that we’ll be able to compete which we have done with Glasgow who are a good side as well.
“So we know we can compete with those big teams. But we just have to get our mentality and our attitude right and play how we’ve been playing with ball in hand and put them under pressure. If we do that we’ll have opportunities to win the game. But their squad is a very good one. Clearly they’ve not been getting the best out of it for whatever reason.”