Gregor Townsend believes Scotland can cope without Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg
Gregor Townsend is confident Scotland will be able to cope without influential backs Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg for Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations match at home to Italy.
The experienced pair are missing through injuries that forced them off in the closing stages of last weekend’s defeat by Ireland.
Blair Kinghorn will replace Russell at stand-off and Ollie Smith will take the place of full-back Hogg, as was the case in one of last summer’s Tests against Argentina.
Asked if he was confident the rest of his back-line could step up and take responsibility in the absence of the key duo, Townsend said: “Absolutely. We had a similar situation in the summer, when players stepped up in attacking roles, but also stepped up in general play and in terms of our defence.
“So, we’ve that experience when going up against a top team (without the pair), and that’s what we’re going up against this week in Italy.”
Kinghorn started five consecutive Tests at number 10 for Scotland last year before Russell returned midway through the autumn and reclaimed the position with a string of stunning displays.
It was widely assumed that the versatile Edinburgh back – who has been used as a full-back off the bench in recent matches – would instead take over in the number 15 jersey, with Munster’s Ben Healy perhaps in line to play at stand-off.
“We see Blair as a 10 who can play a number of positions,” explaining why he has opted for Kinghorn at number 10.
“It’s his club position, I know he’s had to play in the back three because of injury at Edinburgh but he’s played there (at number 10) for the last two seasons.
“He played there for us in last year’s Six Nations, three Tests in the summer and was involved in two Tests in the autumn, one he started and one he came off the bench. He’s trained a lot at 10.
“I believe we’ll see a really confident BK, someone in very good physical shape. He’s shown that in different positions so far this year, but we’re looking forward to him playing at 10. He’s played some really good games for us in the last 12 months in that position.”
The third enforced change to the starting XV sees Edinburgh lock Sam Skinner take the place of Richie Gray, who suffered a blow to the ribs against Ireland last Sunday, while Edinburgh flanker Hamish Watson comes in for Matt Fagerson, who drops to the bench.
Uncapped Munster fly-half Ben Healy is named among the replacements, while Cam Redpath is on the bench for the first time in the tournament.
Italy have lost all four of their Six Nations matches so far, but Townsend is adamant they are equipped to give his side a tough challenge at Murrayfield.
“They have taken on the same teams that we have played, and two of those teams are the best teams in the world right now,” said Townsend.
“They’ve run them really close. The Ireland game was very close, I think it was 25-21, within four points for a long period.
“Against France they were seven points down with a 5m lineout in the 80th minute and had already won a penalty try off a driven maul. Those two games could have gone in their favour and nobody would have said they didn’t deserve it.
“They’ve beaten Australia in November, they beat Wales away last year. They are growing and the way they play puts teams under pressure because they attack from everywhere.”
The Scots have taken encouragement from the way they performed in back-to-back losses to the two top teams in the world, France and Ireland.
Townsend is hoping they can take inspiration from their autumn series when they finished their campaign with an emphatic win over Argentina after a spirited defeat against the heavyweights of New Zealand.
“There are a lot of similarities to what happened in November,” said Townsend.
“We had a 60-minute performance at a very high level against New Zealand but didn’t win that game. Against Ireland, it was probably a little bit more than 40 minutes at a very high level but didn’t win.
“The week after the New Zealand game we were really focused on a difficult opponent in Argentina and we played really well in that game, which gave us a boost going into this championship.
“If we can do something similar against Italy, that will give us a boost heading into the World Cup preparations.”