IT DID not take Jamie Ritchie long to prove that he is back to his dynamic best after recovering from injury. Making his comeback for Edinburgh against the Bulls last week, the Scotland captain took the game to the South Africans right from the opening exchanges, and was a key player for the capital side as they went on to win their fourth game in five URC outings.
And, following the personal as well as collective disappointment at the Rugby World Cup, it has not taken Ritchie long to regain his sense of measured optimism. His involvement in the tournament in France ended in the first quarter of the game against Ireland when he damaged a shoulder, and his team’s involvement ended at full-time in that defeat. But, a month and a half later, the 27-year-old back-row forward feels able to look ahead to next year’s Six Nations in a hopeful mood.
Edinburgh coach Sean Everitt suggested the key to Scottish success in the Championship would be a fit Ritchie at the top of his form. Speaking to the media for the first time since the World Cup, Ritchie admitted to being flattered by the suggestion, but countered that everyone in the squad would have to be close to their best for that to happen.
“That is kind of Sean,” he said when reminded of the coach’s prediction. “I hope so, definitely. What you want is everybody playing well, and if I am fit and healthy and playing well, hopefully I can contribute just the same as anybody else to help Scotland win.
“That’s the goal for us. It will be tough, as it always is, in the Six Nations. But we will go into it believing we can win every game – but there are things we need to learn coming off the back of the World Cup that hopefully we can implement come Six Nations time.
“The tournament was frustrating for me personally – it was not how I wanted my World Cup to go. As a team we were disappointed with going out early, but we’ve moved on from that now.”
Ritchie seems certain to remain Scotland skipper going into the Championship – “I’ve not been told I don’t have the job,” was his reply when asked if Scotland coach Gregor Townsend had told him he was still the captain. But he is no longer Edinburgh captain, Everitt having decided that he has enough on his plate with those national duties.
If he was irked by the coach’s decision to give the job jointly to Ben Vellacott and Grant Gilchrist, it did not show either in his reply when asked if he understood Everitt’s reasoning, or in his performance on the pitch in that win against the Bulls. “I met with Sean just after we got back from the World Cup and said, ‘Look, whether I’m captain or not, you’ll get the same from me in terms of how I’ll be around the place,’” he explained.
“If you decide not to make me captain, that’s fine. If you do, that’s fine. And whatever the decision, I’ll support whoever is. That’s all I can do.
“The biggest part of leadership and captaincy for me is being yourself. And that shouldn’t change whether you have the armband or not.
“It’s nice to concentrate on playing and be a bit more selfish in my preparation when I’m here. And then it means if I’m still captain of Scotland I can throw all my efforts into that when we get back into camp.”
More immediately, of course, there is a URC campaign to engage Ritchie’s attentions. Edinburgh have got off to a reassuringly start in the league with four wins from their first five games, and as he looks ahead to that 100th outing against Benetton Ritchie is sure they are now firmly on the right track.
“It’s my 10th season, nine years. It’s taken me a wee while to get to 100. I got to 50 in Cockers’ first year – it’s taken me a while since then.
“Making it is really special. This club has been part of my whole adult life. I’ve been here since I finished school seen people come and go, but the club has been part of my whole adult life and it means a great deal to me. I’ve grown up here, so for me it will be a very special moment to run out for my 100.
“I hate to speak too early, but I feel we’re building. And we’ve had some results that have gone to the death that in the past may not have gone our way – but we’ve found ways to win these games, which is really good.
“We have a lot to work on in the meantime, but we’re winning and learning, which is great, rather than off a loss. We’re building in the right direction and there’s a lot of confidence in this group in how we’re preparing and coming out of the back end of results.”
Ritchei’s performance against the Bulls was precisely what Everitt had hoped for on the player’s return from injury. “To come back after a long lay-off like that and put in a performance like he did is admirable,” the coach said. “Although he didn’t captain the team he led from the front – he was a true warrior on Friday night and that’s what we had to do to be able to beat the Bulls.”
Everitt believes that Ritchie’s impressive return showed he had benefited from his post-World Cup break – not only by necessity physically, but also mentally. “In particular for a leader in a campaign like that, it’s extremely stressful,” Everitt added. “I don’t think the general public, the spectators out there, see the mental side of things. You’re continuously fronting up to the media, and driving performance, and sometimes that’s more exhausting than the game itself.
“So I think the break did him well. I know it tied in with the injury, but he would have got an extended break anyway.”