Nothing much in sport, or life, can be guaranteed at times like this. In the case of the Scottish flanker Jamie Ritchie, even so, everyone predicts the same thing. “He looks to me like someone who will end up being Scottish captain,” says John Barclay, who led the team into the last World Cup. “Absolutely, I see that happening,” agrees Andy Henderson, Ritchie’s rugby coach at school and a long-standing family friend.
This is not your average 23-year-old. Inside the Scotland camp they already laugh about how competitive he is. “He’s probably the guy, when you’re playing touch, who’s still going full bore and tackling people,” says Barclay. “He’s super-competitive and operates at 100mph.”
It was the same, confirms Henderson, when he played cricket for Strathallan’s first XI. “When he was bowling he badly wanted wickets and when he batted he really wanted runs. He was competitive in the field, too.”
The French prop Mohamed Haouas definitely picked on the wrong man at Murrayfield last Sunday. Ritchie, who is almost 6ft 4in, loves a physical contest and was once a British schools judo champion. When Henderson saw the superb photograph of Haouas punching Ritchie in the nose, earning the prop a match-turning red card, his first reaction was to smile. “He’s not got the smallest nose in the world and he’s a bit conscious of it because he thinks he’s a bit of pretty boy. I sent him the picture with a message saying: ‘How lucky your nose stopped that fist hitting you square in the eye! That would have been really awful!’”
Ritchie has metal plates inserted in his cheek and his laconic verdict – “I was hit in the metal so it’s fine” – reflects the steely individual within. He clocked in for his first professional season with Edinburgh at 17, made his first-team bow against Leinster aged 18 and became a father at 19. His partner, now fiancee, Millie, whom he first met by chance in Heathrow Terminal 5 when he was 15, went into labour with their son, Oscar, the night before his first Edinburgh start.
Oscar ended up being born the next morning while Jamie was sitting on the plane down to play at London Irish. Shortly after being injured during last year’s fixture against Wales he learned his father and step-mother had cancer, with his young step-sister Rebecca also facing crucial surgery around the same time to correct a curvature in her spine.
Happily, all concerned are now in a much better place and another child, Ava, also joined the clan two years ago. Somehow, during these myriad challenges, Ritchie has continued to thrive, collecting 20 caps despite suffering a facial injury against Georgia in August that curtailed his World Cup game-time in Japan.
“It’s not been easy for him,” says Henderson. “He’s had to work hard and he’s had some good and bad times. To have all that on a young person’s shoulders and try and hold down a position in international sport says quite a lot about him. For a young man of only 23 he’s done an awful lot.”
Ritchie, who grew up just outside St Andrews and was at school with fellow internationals Zander Fagerson, Murray McCallum and George Horne, has certainly come a long way since Henderson first taught him. In those days he was a teenage fly-half but Henderson knew the family and was convinced it would only be a matter of time before he moved further forward. “He wasn’t a bad stand-off but his father is a big man. I had to sit him down and have the stand-off’s worst conversation: you’re not going to be a stand-off, you’re going to outgrow the position. It wasn’t accepted readily.”
It took one game for all parties to agree the pack was the future. “I remember his first match,” says Henderson. “I think he was trying to prove a point. He got stuck in and I thought: ‘You’re never going to look back.’ He’s always been physical and can chuck people around. We used to played him in the second row as well.
“When you’ve got a player like Jamie who has speed, a great engine, is tough as old boots, has a high skill level – did you see that take-and-give he threw at full speed against France? – they’re pretty special. They’re not ordinary players.”
Barclay, who knows a little about back-row excellence having won 76 caps for his country, has been similarly impressed. Scotland are looking to win three successive championship games for the first time since 1996 and currently have the tightest defensive record in the competition. Barclay reckons their buzzing back-rowers Ritchie and Hamish Watson have been their two best performers.
“The World Cup was the moment Jamie really kicked on for me. He was Scotland’s best player in the games he played in. It’s easy to get carried away and put a big tag on people but he’s already one of the in-form flankers in the UK and Europe. I guess his logical aspiration would be to become a British Lion at some point. I think the sky’s the limit.”
There are certainly similarities with Barclay – “A lot of the boys wind Jamie up about having posters of me on his wall when he was younger” – who went straight from schoolboy rugby into the senior squad. The former’s time with the Scarlets also gave him an insight into the outstanding Welsh loose forwards awaiting Ritchie in Cardiff.
“He’s the kind of guy who’ll relish that,” says Barclay. “It’s tough but physically he can play at six or seven. It doesn’t really bother him where he plays, he plays the same style of game.”
So could he end up touring with the Lions alongside Justin Tipuric, Tom Curry et al in 2021? Barclay sees no reason why not. “He’s got a wise head on young shoulders and, injury and form permitting, has the potential to be in the Scotland team for years. I wouldn’t rule him out of anything.”
A number of fine Scotland back-rowers – Beattie, Leslie, Jeffrey, Barclay – have had names ending in ‘y’ or ‘ie’ and Ritchie is emerging as a fitting successor in all senses.