It will be a pub quiz question for years to come. Who was Scotland’s best player in the opening four rounds of the 2019 Six Nations only to miss out on that crazy day at Twickenham? The answer is obvious, Jamie Ritchie, the stand-out player for Scotland until he was poleaxed playing against Wales and missed the England game with a head/neck injury.
He disappeared down the tunnel ten minutes into the Welsh match, passed that HIA and returned to action only to fail at the second time of asking come Monday morning. While he was obviously distraught at missing that Twickenham thriller, it was probably for the best.
“I was disappointed then, until about Thursday when my neck was still really sore and I realised I probably wouldn’t be able to play anyway,” recalls Ritchie.
“I remember saying before the game that I really thought the boys would pull out a performance. We had been disappointed not to convert pressure in some of the earlier games but I genuinely think that, if we had done, then we could have been at least three from four if not four from four because we didn’t play well against France.
“Look at the Wales and Ireland games, it feels like they didn’t win those games but that we lost them,” says Ritchie before somewhat contradicting himself.
“Obviously Ireland scored three tries and you can’t give Ireland three tries and expect to win.”
Ritchie was a child prodigy and not just at rugby; the second best judo exponent in the UK aged 12, only to quit the sport three years later when exams and rugby squeezed it right out of his busy schedule.
He first played for Scotland Under-20s whilst just 17 and still at Strathallan School (on a sports scholarship). Incidentally, he credits Strath and their coach Andy Henderson for his success – “I don’t think I would be where I am if I hadn’t gone there” – and recently returned to do a day’s coaching.
After playing three seasons for the age-grade team, Ritchie first played for Edinburgh off the bench just two months after his 18th birthday and he made his Scotland debut against Canada aged 21. The recent Six Nations tournament was a coming of age for the flanker, still only 22, who still managed more turnovers than any other Scot and was at, or near the top of the tackle stats in almost every match.
With anyone else you applaud the early breakthrough but Ritchie had been flagged from an early age and you almost want to ask what kept him.
The flanker argues that his tall, slight frame held him back while he bulked up but there was one other, more obvious hurdle to overcome. “At the time I was a firm believer in the things that Solly [former Edinburgh coach Alan Solomons] was doing. If his decision was that I wasn’t ready then maybe I wasn’t ready? I had a run and when I did play in that game against Leinster [aged 18] I thought I did alright.
“I was the only person in that year to sign full-time rather than going into the academy which put a bit of pressure on me but Zander [Fagerson] pretty much signed immediately and we were at school together.”
Ritchie has plenty of positive things to say about the South African coach but it is obvious, if only with the benefit of hindsight, that he held the breakaway back as he did with all too many talented youngsters. When he did throw them into the starting XV, it was all at the same time – a cup game against London Irish, Ritchie’s first start for Edinburgh and it didn’t come until December 2015, a full 14 months after his debut off the bench.
The match proved memorable for several reasons. Irish thumped Edinburgh by 38-6 and Solomons never trusted the “bairns” again although the 19-year-old Ritchie had a handy enough excuse if he fell down on the day.
“The Friday night before we were to travel my partner Millie went into labour four weeks early and I phoned Solly and said that I can’t fly. I was up until 2am on the Saturday of the match. Then because nothing had happened in the hospital, I went home and went to bed at 2.30. I slept until 4.30am, when I got up to catch a 6am flight to London.
“Just before the flight I turned my phone off and Millie phoned me to tell me that Oscar had been born but I was already on the plane. I played for 50 minutes, came off the pitch and there was a taxi waiting as soon as I had changed, to take me to the airport, another taxi straight to hospital from the airport.
“My partner was at university in Glasgow. We moved in together two months before Oscar was born. It was a bit of a shock to the system while we came to terms with it but obviously being a parent is amazing. We had to grow up really quickly and Oscar being there kinda ran alongside me playing a lot.”
Oscar now has a little sister Ava and dad admits with a wry smile that life is busy, but good busy, and you can say the same about his employers. Next Saturday Edinburgh host the biggest game of the season, a Champions Cup quarter-final against Munster at BT Murrayfield, and while Ritchie’s stiff neck should be right, the child prodigy is still facing stiff competition from another child prodigy of an earlier era.
John Barclay made his Edinburgh debut on Friday, a mere 14 years after his first Celtic League appearance in Glasgow colours. What’s more, the veteran, sometime Scotland skipper, won the man of the match award in his first outing for ten months. He adds enormously to what is already a competitive position at the club. With Bill Mata a shoo-in at eight and Hamish Watson a probable seven, that leaves three classy Test players, Ritchie, Barclay and Magnus Bradbury, fighting for his No.6 shirt.
“Is it mine?” Ritchie asks rhetorically. “There is so much competition at backrow for Edinburgh. John [Barclay], myself, Luke [Hamilton], Luke Crosbie, we all play across the back row.”
After that win over Leinster, Edinburgh are still alive in the league but next weekend’s quarter-final clash promises to be a titanic battle of wills. A good walk-up crowd and the match may even break the quarter-final attendance record.
As Barclay memorably put it on Friday evening, “no one remembers who played in the quarter-finals” and Edinburgh are building the side and the confidence to go into the match with genuine expectations. Richard Cockerill’s reinvigorated club has lost just one match at home all season and that after heading Cardiff 17-0 inside the final 30 minutes.
“Historically we have done well,” Ritchie argues. “When we beat Racing home and away [in 2011-12], we still had some squeaky wins but if you look at our form in Europe [this season] we have played well every game.
“We won comfortably against Toulon at home and we won comfortably against Toulon away, we won comfortably against Newcastle home and away and we were comfortable at home against Montpellier and we could have won away.
“We are at home as well. Our home form, apart from the Cardiff game, has been outstanding. We have not lost more than one match at home.”
The flanker, somewhat reluctantly, admits that he does, from time to time, allow himself the luxury of imagining a trip to the upcoming Rugby World Cup. He has time on his side but the one-time child star now has a couple of small cheerleaders himself to keep happy.
“Yeah, obviously,” he replies when asked the inevitable World Cup question.
“But there is a lot of time and rugby and training to be done between now and September.
“We have a lot to do before then, some big games for Edinburgh.”
None bigger than next Saturday’s showdown.