Jamie Ritchie reflects on Lions disappointment and leading by example on Scotland's summer tour
At 24, Jamie Ritchie has time on his side but the Scotland flanker was still understandably disappointed to miss out when Warren Gatland named his Lions squad last month.
Ritchie had received a pre-selection email to check his availability and had allowed himself to dream of a call-up for South Africa.
But it was not to be for the Edinburgh man, not this time at least.
The national coach, who will assist Gatland in South Africa rather than travel to eastern Europe with Scotland, has had Ritchie in mind for some time. The forward has been part of the Scotland leadership group all season and has clearly displayed traits which marked him out as a future skipper.
While proud to be named captain Ritchie does not envisage changing his approach, save for reining in any backchat with refs.
“In terms of the way I would like to lead, the most important way for me is to try and play to the best of my ability,” he said. “Leading by example is the way to go.
“It is probably not a bad thing in terms of relationships with referees that I am a bit calmer around them rather than shouting at them from the background. Being captain will keep me a bit more on task and a bit more aware of how to act around that area of the game.
“Having done it for Edinburgh over the past couple of weeks it has been quite nice to bleed myself in a bit and get used to doing it again as it has been a while since I captained the team.”
Scotland’s summer programme begins next Sunday with an A international against England in Leicester. Ritchie is unsure whether he will be involved at Welford Road or kept in reserve for the Test matches in Romania and Georgia in July.
The latter would seem a more sensible course of action, with the A match a chance for interim head coach Mike Blair to cast an eye over some of the new faces. There are 18 uncapped players in the squad and Ritchie admitted the unfamiliarity will make things a little trickier.
“There will be guys I’ve not met before or who haven’t been in that environment before,” he said. “The core group of the squad has been reasonably settled and some of the people who came in had been in before so knew what the script was.
“A lot of the group now are fresher faced and maybe haven’t been in and around that environment. Myself and the other leaders are helping them learn the ropes, setting standards and examples to follow. It’s a bit more of a challenge.”
Ritchie has taken advice from Frank Ponissi, the general manager of the Melbourne Storm rugby league team who has mentored members of the Scotland leadership group. He has also spoken with Billy Slater, the former Storm captain, and says the two Aussies have offered a different perspective on leading which has proved very helpful.
Ritchie said the chats, via Zoom, gave him “different things to think about”.
“When to say things, when not to say things, sharing the load in terms of leadership around the group. Some of us are better than others in terms of holding people accountable or leading by example, things like that.
“At this level the margins for improvement are small so anything you can do that gives you that extra five per cent is worth it.”
Reflecting on being overlooked for the Lions, Ritchie said he chatted through the decision with Townsend and Steve Tandy, the Scotland defence coach who will also be part of Gatland’s team in South Africa.
“I was obviously really disappointed on the day,” said the flanker. “Leading up to that I just thought it was nice to be in the mix, it was pretty cool to get the email and have people chatting about you, but as the day grew closer and closer, I started to think that I really want to go. Then the day came, and a few names came up but I wasn’t picked. I was really disappointed.”
Injuries have caused Gatland to make changes to his squad already and there remains the possibility that Ritchie could yet to be summoned to South Africa.
“I was told to stay fit but whether it means I am standby or not I don’t know,” he reflected.
For now, his focus remains solely on Scotland and says being appointed captain is “a real honour”. He is desperate to maintain the form the national side showed in the Six Nations and dismisses suggestions that this is a development tour, despite the experimental nature of the squad.
“It’s not a development tour, it’s very much a Scotland tour. And we’ll be treating it as that. All our processes will be the same in terms of how we prepare for games, our weekly structure and how we want to play.”
He hasn’t played in Romania or Georgia before and is far too young to remember good Scotland sides stumbling to defeats in Bucharest in 1984 and 1991 but he is savvy enough to know that next month’s Tests will be tough, physical in the extreme and likely played in baking heat.
“These games will be challenging, playing away from home in extremely hot conditions against teams who will be really up for it. So, we’ll prepare thoroughly.”
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