THERE were a few individuals missing from the first day of Scotland’s Six Nations training camp at Oriam this [Monday] morning, with Storm Isha wreaking havoc on certain players’ travel plans.
Saracens back-row Andy Christie’s flight from London was diverted to Newcastle, which was frustrating. But spare a thought for poor Rory Hutchinson, who had hoped to make the quick hop from Dublin to Edinburgh on Sunday afternoon following Northampton Saints’ 23-26 Champions Cup win over Munster on Saturday evening, only for his flight to be delayed until 11pm and then diverted to Cologne.
The other notable absentees were head coach Gregor Townsend and new co-captain Rory Darge, who endured a bumpy rider but were not diverted off track on their flight from Edinburgh to attend the Six Nations media launch at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin.
At the event, Townsend confirmed that his decision to hand the national team captaincy to Darge and Finn Russell on a joint ticket was largely driven by concern that outgoing skipper Jamie Ritchie is not currently a guaranteed starter in the side.
He insisted that Ritchie – who led the team throughout the 2022-23 season and at last Autumn’s World Cup – took the demotion in his stride and is now fully focussed on recapturing his best form in order to ensure selection in the Scotland back-row against ferocious competition from Luke Crosbie, Josh Bayliss, Andy Christie, Matt Fagerson, Jack Dempsey and, of course, Darge himself.
“The important thing for any of our leaders is to make sure they’re going to start, and that got me thinking that, if it’s going to be a real conversation around Jamie and the starting team up against those other guys, maybe we should look at someone else as captain,” explained Townsend.
“It was great to see Jamie play for Edinburgh on Friday night [after missing the previous week’s game with a jaw injury] and I thought he played well. But we came to the decision over the weekend to look at someone else and we then came on to the idea of co-captains. They’re both developing as leaders although they’ve not been captains a huge amount in their careers.
“He [Ritchie] took it very well,” Townsend continued. “I’d obviously spoken to him around if he can get back playing then this is the challenge he has now with the competition we have – to get in the team – and I explained that we still hadn’t made up our mind around captaincy, but for us the captain has to be someone who is a going to be nailed-on starter, and just now that isn’t the case because of the competition.
“He’s been excellent through this whole process, and he’s determined to be in the starting team down in Wales [on 3rd February], so that’s his whole focus.
“He played really well for Edinburgh earlier in the season, in that Ulster game in particular. Maybe things didn’t go so well for him over at Scotstoun, but we know Jamie bringing his best rugby is only going to help Scotland.
“But him bringing his best rugby …. he knows it has to happen now because of the competition we have. He’s got a week training to show where he is.”
Darge has faced his own injury issues recently after damaging his knee in Glasgow’s 1872 Cup clash against Edinburgh at Murrayfield in late December, but Townsend sounded optimistic about his new co-captain being fit for the start of the Six Nations against Wales in Cardiff on 3rd February.
“We’ll wait and see but he got good news on Friday,” said the coach. “He’s out the knee brace and he’ll start his running rehab process this week. He did a session on Sunday, not much on Monday because he’s here in Dublin, and then we’ll see how he is at the end of the week.
“He’ll definitely be in the squad for Spain [pre-Six Nations camp running from next Sunday to Thursday] and for the Wales game, we’ll need to make the call on Monday or Tuesday whether he’ll make it or not. But if he doesn’t then we’re confident that it will be the following week.
“Rory can lead by example in terms of his physicality and the defensive side of the game, and Finn can lead on the attack side of the game,” Townsend added. “We’ll see how it works on the field. We’ve had co-captains before. Against Tonga it was Jamie and Ali Price, at Glasgow [where Townsend coached before taking on the Scotland job] we did it for a couple of seasons. Some referees like it better knowing they can go to someone around the breakdown or the lineout, and someone else for something more general.”
Russell spoke recently about how stepping back from goal-kicking duties at Bath has helped helped relieve pressure with beneficial consequences on the rest of his game, but Townsend indicated that he expect Russell to carry on in that role at international level.
“I think he thrives on kicking for Scotland,” the coach reasoned. “He didn’t kick much for Racing and still kicked for Scotland.
“I think his goal-kicking last year was at a really high level and just getting back to the rhythm of knowing that he is kicking that week, I’m sure he will be fine.”
Townsend also suggested that Russell will take the lead when it comes to communicating with the referee during matches, which is a role Ritchie struggled to do in a positive tone.
“I’d say so. Even when he was vice-captain, Finn was very good at interacting with the referee,” said Townsend. “10s tend to have that connection after tries, and at the halfway line, and they are removed a little bit from the set-piece.
“And he’s got that level of experience. He knows where the game is going and what needs to be said to the referee.
“He’s always going to be a leader of the team, working with the captain, but I thought at the weekend there in the Bath versus Toulouse game when they were a man down and he came in and managed the clock at times and helped the captain make decisions.
“So, he has always been in that role as a vice-captain and now it will be him saying to others: ‘What do you think we should do?’ But he’s the one who has got to make the decision.
“Finn is in charge of our our attack on the field and having played lots of Test matches will be able to lean on that. Rory is a big leader of our defence with his physicality and he leads by example, and others can follow.”
Enjoyed this article? Quality journalism like ours is made possible by readers like you. If you value our in-depth coverage of Scottish rugby at all levels and want to see more, please consider supporting us with a subscription or donation. It helps us keep delivering the news you love. Thank you for being a part of The Offside Line community!