Six Nations: Blair Kinghorn given first Scotland start for Ireland clash

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Blair Kinghorn will make his first start for Scotland against Ireland on Saturday after being named in Gregor Townsend’s side for their pivotal Six Nations clash in Dublin.

The on-form Edinburgh wing’s inclusion is the only alteration to the side which beat England last time out as he replaces the injured Tommy Seymour.

Kinghorn – who has scored eight tries for his club side this term – made his debut off the bench in that triumphant Calcutta Cup win a fortnight ago.

Now he will hope to play a part in a victory over Joe Schmidt’s side that will see the Dark Blues claw themselves back into Championship contention.

Glasgow wing Lee Jones comes onto the bench following the withdrawal of Scotstoun colleague Seymour with a back injury, while the Warriors’ Fraser Brown – who featured in all but two Scotland Tests last year – returns from injury to take Scott Lawson’s place as replacement hooker.

There is no place for Richie Gray, despite the giant Toulouse lock rejoining the squad after shaking off a troublesome calf injury as Grant Gilchrist gets the nod to start alongside his brother Jonny Gray.

Flanker John Hardie also misses out despite being handed a recall to Townsend’s squad this week for the first time since being suspended by his club side Edinburgh following allegations of cocaine use.

Scotland lost their opening clash to Wales but back-to-back wins over France and England have now raised hopes that they can make a bid for their first title since their 1999 Five Nations success.

Townsend said: “We were delighted with the result against England and backing up our win against France with an improved performance.

“The intent we showed in attack and defence in the first half was very encouraging and we continued to work hard in the second half. The effort that went into denying England a second try in the closing minutes was great to see.

“Our players had prepared very well for the challenge of taking on England and there has been a similar focus and commitment this week at training.

“There are a few areas of our game that we are working to improve and we are aware that we will have to be better if we are to beat a very good Ireland side in Dublin.”

Scotland team to play Ireland at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday:

S Hogg (Glasgow); B Kinghorn (Edinburgh), H Jones, P Horne (both Glasgow), S Maitland (Saracens); F Russell (Glasgow), G Laidlaw (Clermont); G Reid (London Irish), S McInally, S Berghan; G Gilchrist (all Edinburgh), J Gray (Glasgow); J Barclay (Scarlets), H Watson (Edinburgh), R Wilson (Glasgow).
Replacements: F Brown (Glasgow), J Bhatti (Glasgow), WP Nel (Edinburgh), T Swinson (Glasgow), D Denton (Worcester), A Price, N Grigg, L Jones (all Glasgow). 

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Six Nations: Wales boss Warren Gatland backs Taulupe Faletau to succeed as captain against Italy

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Toby Faletau is set to lead Wales for the first time.

Wales boss Warren Gatland has hailed Taulupe Faletau’s “world-class” quality as he prepares to captain his country for the first time.

Bath number eight Faletau will lead Wales in Sunday’s Six Nations clash against Italy at the Principality Stadium, with regular skipper Alun Wyn Jones rested.

And Scarlets flanker James Davies makes his Test debut in a team showing 10 changes from the one beaten 37-27 by Ireland last time out.

Davies, 27, was an integral part of the Scarlets’ PRO12 title triumph last term, in addition to helping them reach this season’s European Champions Cup quarter-finals.

He also featured for the Great Britain Olympic silver medal-winning Rugby sevens squad at Rio 2016 and is the younger brother of Wales and British and Irish Lions centre Jonathan Davies.

Wing George North’s selection comes four days on from him missing Northampton’s Aviva Premiership game against Sale, after which interim Saints boss Alan Gaffney suggested the 25-year-old had not wanted to play for his club.

Warren Gatland 2

North had been released by Wales as it was a Six Nations fallow week, but he did not feature for Northampton amid reports he had an arrangement with former Saints Rugby director Jim Mallinder that he would not play club Rugby on rest weekends.

Gatland said: “It is a great opportunity for Taulupe.

“He is a world-class player, hugely experienced and this will be great for his development and we are looking forward to seeing those leadership qualities come through.

“We have made some changes, but we are bringing in a lot of quality and a lot of experience with the likes of Bradley Davies, Justin Tipuric, George North and Taulupe.

“Add into that James Davies, who gets his first cap, and Elliot Dee, who gets his first start – this is a great opportunity for them to play tournament Rugby.

“It is challenging, making changes, but we have picked a really exciting team, and Sunday is their chance.”

Faletau has recovered from injury to make a first appearance in this season’s tournament, and he takes charge of a team that also includes the likes of North, hooker Dee, centre Owen Watkin and fly-half Gareth Anscombe.

The five starting XV survivors from Dublin are Liam Williams, who moves from wing to full-back instead of Leigh Halfpenny, wing Steff Evans, centre Hadleigh Parkes, scrum-half Gareth Davies and lock Cory Hill.

Gatland has opted for a new-look back row of Davies, Justin Tipuric in the number six shirt, and Faletau.

But centre Scott Williams, fly-half Dan Biggar, flankers Aaron Shingler and Josh Navidi, plus number eight Ross Moriarty, are among those not involved in the match-day 23.

Wales are effectively out of the title running following successive losses at Twickenham and the Aviva Stadium, but Gatlland has still made more changes than many might have expected.

The replacements’ bench, meanwhile, includes Wales’ entire first-choice front row of Rob Evans, Ken Owens and Samson Lee, while there are also chances for highly rated Cardiff Blues forwards Seb Davies and Ellis Jenkins.

Wales team to play Italy in Cardiff on Sunday:

L Williams (Saracens); G North (Northampton), O Watkin (Ospreys), H Parkes (Scarlets), S Evans (Scarlets); G Anscombe (Cardiff Blues), G Davies (Scarlets); N Smith (Ospreys), E Dee (Dragons), T Francis (Exeter), C Hill (Dragons), B Davies (Ospreys), J Tipuric (Ospreys), J Davies (Scarlets), T Faletau (Bath, capt).
Replacements: K Owens (Scarlets), R Evans (Scarlets), S Lee (Scarlets), S Davies (Cardiff Blues), E Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), A Davies (Scarlets), R Patchell (Scarlets), L Halfpenny (Scarlets).

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Italian Pro14 sides thriving under guidance of Azzurri head coach Conor O'Shea

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While Italy may have only won four out of 20 matches since Conor O’Shea’s arrival as national team head coach, it’s worth looking at club sides Zebre and Treviso to see true signs of rugby’s development in Italy.

The Irishman was tasked with one of the most difficult jobs in world rugby when he took up the role in March 2016 after the Azzurri had finished bottom of the Six Nations in four out of the last five seasons.

But although many will point to the 138 points shipped in the first three matches of the championship as a sign of hardly any progress, positive changes are starting to show for the Pro14 sides.

A week after Ireland crushed Italy 56-19 in Dublin, Benetton and Zebre secured a first away double for Italian clubs in the league’s history.

Interestingly, Benetton have won eight out of 16 matches in the Pro14 this term – a significant improvement from three, three and five victories in their last three campaigns.

For Zebre, four wins to date and a number of close defeats represent a positive following three, five and three wins since the 2014/15 Pro 12 season.

Although Zebre are not at Benetton’s level – losing 24-17 away in December – Italian clubs have earned respect from their rivals due to their improvements in skillset, game plan and ability to play a more attractive brand of rugby.

For team stats, Zebre are two tries away from matching their 38 tries scored in the whole of last season – with another four regular season matches still remaining – while Benetton have already scored one more try than last season.

It, without doubt, represents a massive step forward for Italian rugby.

Ireland v Italy - NatWest Six Nations

O’Shea’s squad is mainly made up of players from the local clubs with 15 from Benetton, 13 from Treviso and one each from Stade Francais, Toulouse and Fiamme Oro in Rome.

Zebre star Matteo Minozzi has been the stand-out player for the national side this Six Nations – an example of a young star developed through the Italian system.

Angelo Esposito is another flyer for the Parma side – one of the leading lights of the Italian back-line – who is currently sidelined with a knee injury.

The Azzurri’s results may not be capturing the attention of fans worldwide but O’Shea is the chief lieutenant orchestrating the changes – drafting together two clubs and helping with the recruitment of players and coaches beneath.

Michael Bradley, Brendan Venter, Wayne Smith and Mike Catt are just some of the big names O’Shea has roped in to aid the development of Italian rugby.

With signs of progress beginning to show, Italian club rugby is certainly in its most promising place yet.

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