The Exeter Chiefs player has led with distinction over the past three seasons, skippering the national side to notable home and away successes against both England and France as well as victories over Australia at Murrayfield and Wales in Llanelli where he ended the game filling in at stand-off. He has also become Scotland’s leading try-scorer of all time and a Lions Test player. But his tenure ended on Wednesday when Townsend named Jamie Ritchie as his new captain for the autumn Test series against Australia, Fiji, New Zealand and Argentina.
Ritchie, 26, was appointed co-captain of Edinburgh at the start of the season but now flies solo as skipper of his country. Townsend still expects Hogg to contribute in a leadership role but wants to ease some of the burden on the Hawick man who turned 30 in the summer. “We see how passionate he is for Scotland,” said Townsend. “We want to keep that, we want to get the best out of him with where he is physically. There’s a load on you. Stuart played the most minutes out of any rugby player in Europe last year on the back of the Lions tour. A lot of that is physical stress but if you’re adding other things as well, it is a burden.
“Stuart would never say it was a burden, but this is what as a coach you have to weigh up. Look, let’s focus on you being the best player. You can lead the team in many other ways, by how you play, how you contribute. We believe Jamie can be a very good captain for us too. So it’s linked by Stuart being the best player he can be, and Jamie being an excellent captain, who will get support from the other captains in the squad, Grant Gilchrist, Hamish [Watson]. Captaincy is not just down to one man, it’s down to as many as you can produce in a team, and we are producing more leaders now.”
Gilchrist and Watson captained Scotland during their summer series in Argentina which was lost in agonising fashion in the final seconds of the final Test. Ritchie missed the tour as he recovered from a ruptured hamstring while Hogg was rested after a long, arduous season. Townsend now feels the time is right for Richie to step up and said the decision to demote Hogg had nothing to do with his involvement in an unauthorised night out in Edinburgh with five other players during last season’s Six Nations.
“It can be tough being Scotland captain, an international captain,” said Townsend. “Joe Root has talked about how not being [England] captain freed him up to play his best cricket. There are real positives about being Scotland captain that can bring out the best in you, and that’s happened to Stuart on a number of occasions. You know how proud he is to lead out his country. But there can be difficult times. It’s to bring the best out of Stuart and see what happens with him.”
Only Greig Laidlaw and David Sole captained the Scotland men’s team more often than Hogg. Asked if it was a gamble to change captains and also axe the vastly experienced Finn Russell with the World Cup less than a year away, Townsend said: “It probably depends on how you look at timescales. Three months out from the World Cup would be more radical. But World Cups are important, Six Nations are important too, autumn campaigns are important.
“We believe this is right for now, and of course we have the World Cup on our horizon. But we have four matches in this campaign, we have the Six Nations which is almost like a World Cup every year for us. They’re really important too.
“We wanted to see Jamie in the leadership role. Stuart did a very good job prior to that. The opportunity would have come around in the summer, but Jamie wasn’t fit. Great that Edinburgh have appointed him as captain this year. So we feel the opportunity is right for Jamie.
“Captaincy can be tough. There are a lot of things to look after and look out for, that have to be managed during the week. Stuart’s done a very good job at that. I feel that Stuart can be our best player, and has been on a number of occasions. This will, I believe, give him the opportunity to do this more often.”
Ritchie had a taste of international captaincy last season when he and Ali Price shared the honour for the opening autumn Test against Tonga. One year on, the Edinburgh flanker will lead the national side on his own for the first time when Australia visit Murrayfield on Saturday week.
The Dundee-born back-row skippered Scotland at age-grade level and has long been considered a national captain of the future. Townsend believes his experiences with his club this season will help Ritchie. “It’s a real positive that Jamie is captaining Edinburgh just now,” said the coach. “He is a very competitive player, been one of our key players over the past few years and him being back fit, this is a great opportunity for him.”
Hogg will miss the autumn opener against Australia as the game falls outside the designated international window and Scotland will field a side composed of home-based players, but he is expected to return for the games against Fiji, New Zealand and Argentina on the first three weekends in November.