WITH everybody fit and on form at the start of the season, Jamie Ritchie would have had his work cut-out getting regular game time at Edinburgh, never mind establishing himself as a key figure in Scotland’s Six Nations campaign.
However, injuries to club-mates John Barclay, Magnus Bradbury, Hamish Watson, Luke Hamilton and Lewis Carmichael, plus Matt Fagerson of Glasgow Warriors, Dave Denton of Leicester Tigers, Blade Thomson of the Scarlets, Cornell du Preez of Worcester Warriors and now Sam Skinner of Exeter Chiefs and John Hardie of Newcastle Falcons, has severely reduced Gregor Townsend’s back-row options. Ritchie has grabbed his opportunity brilliantly.
He backed up his outstanding performance against Italy in Scotland’s Six Nations opener with another towering effort against Ireland on Saturday. When the missing men start filtering back into the selection mix it is going to be very difficult for them to dislodge the 22-year-old Fifer, who started his rugby career at Madras College in St Andrews, before earning a scholarship to Strathallan School in Perthshire from S2 onwards.
Despite picking up a nasty gash to his forehead which required 12 stitches to be administered just before half-time, the flanker managed 23 tackles in a heroic defensive effort by Scotland during the second-half on Saturday, which takes his total for the Championship to 43, and also managed two of Scotland’s three breakdown turnovers.
While Ritchie had every right to be proud of his own contribution, the overriding emotion immediately after the game was of frustration.
“Individual errors are what they are, it’s people making poor decisions [which cost us] and I was guilty of it myself,” he reflected.“It’s when you compound those errors that you find yourself in real difficulty.
“We were compounding mistakes after the break. We couldn’t execute, and we were under pressure in the game.”
He also had no time for the suggestion that Scotland’s soaring error-count can be justified by the pressure they were put under by an Irish team ranked second in the world was exerting on them.
“You are under pressure and you have to handle that situation better,” he insisted. “We need to eradicate the mistakes ahead of the next game against France.
“It’s international rugby and this is the highest pressure you can face – defensive pressure comes into it – but we hold ourselves to higher standards and we will look at ourselves over the coming days.
“We started the game really well and overall I thought we played well in the first half.But then we gifted them two tries and you can’t do that.
“We put ourselves into some decent positions in the second half, but our execution undoubtedly let us down.”
Ritchie’s potential has been widely recognised since his pre-teens and he first wore the thistle at Under-16 level. He captained Scotland Under-18s in 2014 and debuted for the Under-20s at the Junior World Championship in New Zealand that same year.
He was awarded his first pro contract with Edinburgh straight out of school at the start of the following season, making his debut off the bench against Leinster in October 2014, just two months after his 18th birthday.
Ritchie captained the Under-20s during the 2015 Six Nations and World Championships and was a member of the squad again the following year, but his speedy ascent up the rugby cliff-face seemed to plateau as part of an Edinburgh squad which really struggled to build any sort of momentum under previous head coach Alan Solomons.
It is also possible that his progress was hindered by being seen as a hybrid back-row option: caught somewhere between a typical open-side fetcher and a quintessential blind-side bull-dozer. That versatility could, however, become a valuable commodity as Townsend looks to piece together a World Cup squad which is equipped for every eventuality.
Like so many of his Edinburgh colleagues, the arrival of Richard Cockerill as head coach ahead of the start of last season had a remarkable galvanising effect on Ritchie. He made it onto Scotland’s trip of the Americas last summer and picked up his first cap in the tour opener against Canada. He then missed the defeat to the USA and came off the bench in the victory over Argentina.
He was involved throughout the Autumn and has grown in stature as an international player with each appearance.
“If Gregor keeps selecting me then I will be happy,” he concluded. “I feel settled in the team, I will always back my own ability. I thought I did okay against Ireland although I did make some mistakes. Hopefully I get the opportunity to do it again.”
He undoubtedly will.