Gregor Townsend expects Jamie Ritchie to respond positively to losing the Scotland captaincy as he challenged the Edinburgh flanker to get back to “his top level” and book himself a starting berth for the opening Guinness Six Nations match away to Wales.
The 27-year-old replaced Stuart Hogg as skipper for the 2022 autumn Tests and also led the Scots in last year’s Six Nations and at the World Cup in France.
However, with Ritchie no longer guaranteed a starting place amid intense competition in the back-row, it was revealed on Sunday that Townsend had appointed Bath stand-off Finn Russell and Glasgow flanker Rory Darge as his new co-captains ahead of the upcoming championship.
— Guinness Men's Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) January 22, 2024
“He’s reacted really well,” said Townsend, when asked on Monday at the Six Nations launch in Dublin how Ritchie had taken the news. “I’ve been in communication for a few weeks now around his game and also the captaincy.
“He was well aware that we were going to leave this decision until the weekend. The focus for him is about getting into the team that plays Wales and he’s really determined to do that. That will be tough because the competition we have in the back-row right now is at a high level.
“We’re all optimistic that this (relinquishing the captaincy) will bring out the best in Jamie and he can be one of our best players, back at his top level.
“We saw on Friday night when he came off the bench against Scarlets, there was a real hunger and intent about how he went through his game. The competition in the back-row and the ability to just focus on that at training should be a positive for him leading into the Wales game.”
“He can be one of our best players but he is competing with some guys who are in really good form at openside and blindside. Jamie will be a key leader for us if he’s in the 23 or the XV.”
Glasgow back-rower Darge is hopeful of being fit for the start of the tournament despite concerns he might be out until late February with a knee injury sustained against Edinburgh at the end of December. The 23-year-old declared on Monday “I’m aiming for one of the first two games.”
“We got good news on Rory on Friday that he’s able to start that rehab process and we’ll assess how he goes after a week’s rehab,” said Townsend.
The prognosis is not so promising for free-scoring Edinburgh wing Darcy Graham, who will miss at least the first two games against Wales and France with a quad issue.
“He’s obviously very disappointed,” said Townsend.
“He played against Gloucester (on January 13) and was tight around the quad area so we thought it would be worth getting a scan, hoping it would be a week to two-week injury at most because that’s what happened when he had the same problem during the World Cup warm-up games.
“But it was actually more significant. We’re hopeful he’ll be available for round three (at home to England on February 24) but it all just depends how it reacts when he starts rehab again.”