White texted Ritchie to congratulate him with a simple message when he learned that Gregor Townsend had appointed the Edinburgh man as skipper. “It was ‘Be yourself’,” revealed Ritchie. The 26-year-old has led Scotland once before but it was in tandem with Ali Price during last season’s autumn opener against Tonga and the co-captaincy was very much a one off. This time he’s flying solo and has been entrusted with the honour for the foreseeable future, taking the mantle from Stuart Hogg. It is not something he will treat lightly.
“As a captain I will be as authentic as I can be,” Ritchie said after the final team run at Murrayfield. “It is important that I am true to myself. I won’t try and change too much. I have been given the captaincy for a reason so why would I change from what I have been doing well? If you see me shouting it is because I have done it before and feel a need to make a point strongly but I will be using the guys around me too and their expertise.”
White’s words carry weight for Ritchie because of the esteem in which he held the former Scotland forward in his formative years. White was a colossus for the national team during periods that weren’t always plain sailing and he led with distinction, captaining Scotland on 19 occasions and giving Ritchie some of his best childhood memories.
“When I really remember enjoying games at Murrayfield was in the Six Nations in 2006 when we beat France and England at home,” said the flanker. “It may sound a bit cheesy but when we won the Calcutta Cup the guys were doing a lap of the pitch and Jason White was a hero of mine. He probably didn’t, but I thought he looked straight at me in the crowd and held up the Calcutta Cup so that is a poignant memory for me in my rugby.”
The 26-year-old doesn’t expect the captaincy to curb his natural combative instincts but he also feels he has learned to pick and choose his battles. Ritchie will win his 33rd cap on Saturday and knows that his duties now extend to regular dialogue with the referee, who on this occasion is England’s Luke Pearce.
“As my career has developed, I have probably moved away from the really aggressive handbags,” said Ritchie. “If it kicks off and I feel there is something there then maybe I’ll be in it or maybe I won’t. But you need to be a bit more controlled when you are communicating with referees, and I think that is something that helps my game because it keeps me calm and in the moment. So, I don’t think I will change too much because as my international career has progressed there has been less of the red mist.”
Scotland are kicking off the Autumn Nations Series a week early and, as a consequence, must do without their English-based players. So while Hogg, Adam Hastings, Chris Harris et al are slugging it out in the Premiership, Townsend has had to pick a side comprising players from Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors. There is a 10-5 split in favour of the capital club, and you have to go back to February 2009 and the Six Nations match against Wales at Murrayfield for the last time there were as many Edinburgh players in the Scotland starting XV.
The Scots lost out 26-13 on that occasion but Ritchie believes the absence of the Exiles should not make too significant a difference. “It is a hugely talented group we have, with or without the English guy, and the guys who play this week have all got Test match experience. So, it is not a free hit. We are going into this game confident that we can win it.”
Scotland have come out on top in all three meetings with Australia under Townsend, a highly impressive record which would seem under threat given the absence of such key personnel. Nevertheless, the prospect of four home autumn Tests is one the coach will relish as he steps up preparations for next year’s Rugby World Cup. He expects the Wallabies to stick to their attacking traditions under Dave Rennie and may try to counter it with a more pragmatic approach.
In explaining his decision to omit Finn Russell from the series the coach stressed the need for more consistency. Blair Kinghorn is tasked with pulling the strings at stand-off and while Townsend will still want his team to play at speed there may be a temptation to take fewer risks. The Wallabies welcome back Michael Hooper to their back row after he missed the Rugby Championship for personal reasons and Townsend has put his team on high alert at the breakdown. Australia were profligate in last year’s Murrayfield defeat when it came to giving away penalties and the coach expects referee Pearce to be on his mettle this weekend.
“They are very committed tacklers and they look to stop attacks quickly,” said Townsend. “So that has a risk and reward element to it. Putting bodies into either a jackal or counter-ruck to stop attacks getting to multi-phase. We’ve got a role to play to make sure they don’t get that ball. The referee has a role to play as well to make sure what they’re doing is legal. And if you are putting bodies into breakdowns there will be more space elsewhere on the field.”
Scotland have two outstanding finishers in Darcy Graham and Duhan van der Merwe, both on form and both clinical. The hope is that Kinghorn can get the attack moving and see enough of the ball to get them involved.