Six Nations: Jamie Ritchie aiming to shine in absence of established stars

There are any number of similarities that Jamie Ritchie shares with his fellow flanker John Barclay and one is that he has been earmarked for success for a very long time. Barclay was drafted into the Scotland squad aged 17, Ritchie played his first game off the bench for Edinburgh aged 18. He spent three seasons with the Scotland Under-20 squad, playing against the likes of All Black Damian McKenzie and Richie Mo’unga along the way, so it is almost surprising that he took as long as he did to gain full international recognition, capped last summer in Canada at 22.

There are any number of similarities that Jamie Ritchie shares with his fellow flanker John Barclay and one is that he has been earmarked for success for a very long time. Barclay was drafted into the Scotland squad aged 17, Ritchie played his first game off the bench for Edinburgh aged 18. He spent three seasons with the Scotland Under-20 squad, playing against the likes of All Black Damian McKenzie and Richie Mo’unga along the way, so it is almost surprising that he took as long as he did to gain full international recognition, capped last summer in Canada at 22.

He now has six international appearances to his name and the chance to add to that tally in the coming weeks given the long list of injuries to Scotland’s breakaways. Actually, that may be unfair to the flanker who was one of the standouts for Scotland in the autumn series where he started three games and played the fourth off the bench. After a hesitant start to his professional career, he is growing into his potential and growing in confidence too, as we shall see.

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Scotland have often impressed in November only to implode come February and, if he’s selected to start against Italy, it will be flanker’s first taste of Six Nations rugby; another massive step up in a season that has already seen him scale new heights.

“There are a few guys who are out with injury and unfortunately Hamish [Watson] picked up his at the weekend, which is a shame for him,” says the versatile Ritchie who could yet replace him.

“There is huge competition in that area, always, regardless if there are boys injured or not. I think there is an opportunity there. I think I played well enough in the autumn to show that I can go well at this level. So, if I get the nod then hopefully we get a run.

“My first game I came to was a Six Nations game. These are the ones you dream about, these are the ones that come around every year, and you want to be involved. And these are the ones everybody talks about. So definitely, this is for real, this is the big time.

“I hope I’m picking up experience all of the time, and obviously get the opportunity to play. And I’d like to think that I could step up again, and back myself in most situations. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to be an international rugby player.”

That first ever Six Nations match he attended was in 2006, when two tries from Sean Lamont helped Scotland to one of their three wins that year. This squad will do well to match that, partly due to those injuries, partly down to Scotland’s poor record in London and Paris.

Ritchie is equally comfortable on either side of the scrum, giving Gregor Townsend options. He could slot into the six shirt with John Hardie, an old mucker from his time with Edinburgh, on the open side. Or perhaps more likely he could start at seven with Exeter’s Sam Skinner at blindside adding more ballast to Scotland’s forwards. The scars of Italy’s win in 2015, when the Scots failed to negate the visitors’ driving maul, are still raw.

Hardie may not match Watson’s intelligence when it comes to reading the game but the Kiwi flanker does what it says on his passport; he is the first Scot since Jason White to use the tackle as an offensive weapon and that alone can lift an entire team.

“I played a few games when he was at Edinburgh,” says Ritchie. “It’s always good fun, getting off the back of him smoking someone and getting a turnover.

“If guys run at you, you have to tackle them. Usually ‘Hards’ is running at someone to tackle them. It’s always fun to watch, and it’s good to play with as well.”

Perhaps due to his versatility, Ritchie is difficult to define as a breakaway, an everyman, strong over the ball where Scotland have been poor in recent years, a decent carrier, another lineout option like his rival Wilson but perhaps with poorer distribution skills. And then you remember his pass to Darcy Graham against Toulon in the south of France, when Ritchie drew two defenders and flicked the ball beautifully out of the back of his right hand for the winger to score in the corner. That sublime show of skill was overshadowed by Viliame Mata’s outrageous offload for James Johnson’s second-half score.

“It’s probably one the best things I’ve ever done on a rugby pitch. And then Bill goes and pulls that one out of his top hat,” Ritchie moans, tongue only half in cheek.

If Ritchie is new to the Six Nations, not knowing exactly what to expect, we can probably say the same thing from the sidelines. Scotland are missing important players but, as Gregor Townsend never tires of telling us, that opens the door for others and one versatile breakaway can nail his ticket to Japan over the next seven weeks.

Ritchie comes into camp riding high on the back of Edinburgh’s seven match winning streak, especially the twin Champions Cup matches against Toulon and Montpellier. Moreover, the Scots open with two games at Murrayfield which gives them a fighting chance of getting off to a flyer, something that isn’t lost on the newbie.

“You couldn’t really ask for a better start, getting two home games, and Ireland, because they are obviously the big dogs at the moment, they are the ones who will probably be the hardest team to beat,” he says.

“To get them at home and Italy at home, it’s a huge opportunity for us to start well and to show other teams that we are here to be taken seriously, and as we’ve said before, we are not just looking to take part, we are looking to win the Six Nations.”

If confidence alone could win matches the Scots would be in with a shout.