Jamie Ritchie: Scotland can beat any team in world and our defence coach is best I've worked with
As the countdown to this autumn’s Rugby World Cup continues, however, the national captain knows that the issue for him and his colleagues is ensuring they play at the top of their game more consistently - not only for the duration of a single match, but also for a run of games.
Currently fifth in the World Rugby rankings, Scotland have been drawn in the same World Cup pool as two teams ranked above them - Ireland, No 1, and South Africa, No 4 - as well as Tonga and Romania. They lost to the Irish as well as to France in the Six Nations, but Ritchie believes there were encouraging signs in the Championship which suggest that if Scotland can keep up their recent improvement they can qualify from that pool.
“We had a pretty successful Six Nations,” the Edinburgh back-row forward said. “Beforehand, if you had asked anyone outwith the group if they would have taken outright third behind arguably the best two teams in the world, they probably would have said yes.
“The France game is the one that hurts the most, because arguably we were the better team on the day. We just didn’t quite get it right at the start of the game and at the end.
“We need to put a full performance together. A complete performance. We’ve shown over the last couple of seasons that on our day if we play our best rugby, we can beat anyone in the world and be a better team than anyone in the world.
“You saw that against France, when we were all over them for 60 minutes of the game. If we can turn that into an 80-minute performance, we are going to cause these teams who are supposedly some of the best in the world a lot of problems.”
Townsend recently agreed a new long-term contract that will see him remain as head coach well beyond the World Cup, which kicks off in early September when host nation France play New Zealand. And last week his assistant coaches, including defence coach Steve Tandy, also signed new deals.
Ritchie has been encouraged by the stability and continuity that those negotiations have ensured, and has been especially enthused by the fact that Tandy is to remain in place for some time to come. “The coaching team around Gregor is probably one of the best in the world,” he continued. “Steve Tandy is probably the best coach I’ve ever worked with in terms of his detail. The way he’s shaped our defence has been outstanding.
“If you were to go into our squad and ask what our defence is, its identity, people would all come out with very similar answers - and that’s a sign we are on the same page. Steve’s job is to get our defence right, and part of our defence is trying to get the ball back so we can attack.
“The bits where he’s had to adapt is looking at the areas where we can put teams under pressure to get the ball back. That’s the one thing he’s thinking about most.”
Ritchie, now 26, was speaking on Thursday evening at a touch rugby session at Madras Rugby Club in St Andrews, where he was accompanied by Edinburgh team-mate Grant Gilchrist, Glasgow Warriors players Jamie Bhatti and George Horne, and Warriors and Scotland assistant coach Pete Horne, George’s older brother. It was a nostalgic occasion for Ritchie, who first picked up a rugby ball the best part of two decades ago on the very same playing fields.
“This is where my rugby journey started, so it’s pretty cool to be back,” he explained. “It’s a bit of a full-circle moment. When I was in Primary Four I started mini-rugby here. My dad was the coach.
“I ran about here dreaming of playing for Scotland. I think the first time I ever met a Scotland player was probably about 20 yards from the spot we’re standing on at the moment, which is pretty cool. I’ve got a picture of it.
“It would have been the 2006 Six Nations team - they trained down here before the Six Nations. I remember them all coming down. My family home is five minutes away from here so it’s quite nice to be back. It’s not changed too much, which is nice.”
As he and his team-mates put a large group of local girls and boys through their paces, it was easy to imagine that in 20 years’ time one of them might have the same kind of tale to tell - of meeting a Scotland player for the first time then going on to become one themselves.
“That would be nice,” Ritchie added. “That would be pretty cool to have a similar kind of story.”
It would be cooler still, perhaps, if that hypothetical future international could boast about having met a group of players who went on to be part of the first Scotland side to win the World Cup. Not that Ritchie or anyone else in the squad is allowing themselves to think that far ahead: for them, the priority at present is to continue the preparation for the four warm-up matches, beginning with the game against Italy at Murrayfield on Saturday, July 29. After that come home and away games against France then a one-off home encounter with Georgia, and only following that final match will attention turn to the opening World Cup fixture with South Africa.
“We’ve not started speaking about the games, but everyone knows that come day one, that’s our goal, that’s what we’re going for,” Ritchie said of that Springboks game.
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