Gregor Townsend concedes that dropping Blair Kinghorn as his starting stand-off and recalling Finn Russell for the final two games of this season’s Autumn Test Series was a blow to the player – but insists that it was never his intention to permanently shelve the experiment.

With Russell now unavailable for tomorrow lunchtime’s Guinness Six Nations round five clash against Italy at Murrayfield due to a knee injury, Kinghorn will return to the No.10 jersey, which is the position he primarily played up to under-18 level but only intermittently since joining Edinburgh straight out of school in the summer of 2015.

“Blair was disappointed in November,” conceded Townsend. “But the game against Saracens in London after the November Tests was probably his best performance of the season. He was good defensively and looked really confident that day.

“He has played in different positions, three times on the wing for Edinburgh and came off the bench at full-back for us. He is playing and training with confidence and the physical side is important. He has had back and quad issues, especially when he moved to 10 because the load at training is more with kicking, restarts and goal-kicks, so it did take a while to adjust to that, but he is in great physical shape this year.

“We’ve seen him train and how well he’s stepped up as first receiver. His session last Wednesday, when Finn didn’t train at all, was outstanding. I believe now, with how we are playing, it will suit Blair even more. He has the defence focused on the people outside which will open-up opportunities for him. Also, the confidence of those guys calling for the ball a lot will mean he doesn’t have to be the one thinking and coming up with solutions all the time.”

Townsend added that Kinghorn’s selection this week is not just a case of last man standing. Russell, Adam Hastings and Ross Thompson might all be side-lined at the moment, but he would have been more than happy to hand Ben Healy – an Ireland under-20s cap who qualifies for Scotland through his grandmother – his debut as a starter. He has opted instead to name the 23-year-old playmaker on the bench.

“He [Healy] has integrated himself really well with the playing group and he is a very good singer, sang on the bus [Timber by Pitbull], and the players all give a talk about who they are and he did that really well quite early in his time in the camp, so he is really part of our squad now which is great to see,” said Townsend.

“On the field he has been outstanding, leading a lot of our non 23 sessions, so I have been really impressed with him, and his skillset is very good.”

Kinghorn’s elevation from the bench is one of three enforced changes to the starting XV after last Sunday’s defeat to Ireland, with Ollie Smith coming in for his third cap and first Six Nations appearance at full-back in place of Stuart Hogg (knee), while Sam Skinner replaces Richie Gray (ribs) in the second-row.

“Ollie stepped up in a challenging environment in Argentina, that third Test was a noisy atmosphere for his first cap but he played really well,” said Townsend. “Then he played very well against Australia in November, and he’s been unlucky that he’s gone up against our most capped player in our squad in Stuart Hogg, so that’s one reason why he’s not been involved.

“I feel he’s really added to his game this year at Glasgow as well showing very good linking ability. I believe that he’s got that balance now with his running ability – very evasive and very strong – but also able to put people into space. That’s something that will help those around him.

“Obviously, it’s a test for us that our starting locks at the beginning of this championship are not playing this final game,” said Townsend of Gray’s injury and Grant Gilchrist’s suspension. “But it is an opportunity for two experienced players in Sam [Skinner] and Jonny [Gray], with Scott [Cummings] off the bench, so we’re fortunate that we have individuals like that to step in.”

The fourth and final change to the team is in the back-row, where Hamish Watson returns at openside flanker, captain Jamie Ritchie reverts back to blindside, and Matt Fagerson – who has been one of the team’s most industrious players up to this point, having made more tackles [70] than anyone else in the championship to date – drops to the bench.

“Hamish is a really experienced player and we think he can help Jamie a lot with sharing that leadership, and he’s playing with pace which we’ll need this weekend in attack and defence,” explained Townsend.

Meanwhile, Townsend has opted to change all three front-row replacements, with Rory Sutherland, Ewan Ashman and WP Nel replacing Jamie Bhatti, Fraser Brown and

Simon Berghan, which presumably reflects the coaching team’s frustration at the lack of impact off the bench against Ireland.

Cam Redpath has also been added to the bench as outside-back cover in place of Chris Harris.