Column: Scotland are heading home but also strike it Ritchie

The positives will be hard to find today for Scotland.

The positives will be hard to find today for Scotland.

The emotion is still too raw and the tears in Stuart Hogg’s eyes in his post-match interviews on Sunday night in Yokohama told their own story.

Scotland are heading home after the pool stages for only the second time in their World Cup history, and there is no hiding from the disappointment.

But in the form of Jamie Ritchie, then can at least find one note for serious optimism.

It is a stretch to call the 23-year-old Dundonian Scotland’s discovery of the tournament.

After all, he has been on the scene for over a year already and Gregor Townsend has long made it clear how highly he rates the Edinburgh flanker.

The head coach was willing to wait for Ritchie’s facial injury to heal up, sustained in their final warm-up game before the World Cup, and then called him their ‘most consistent’ performer in the back row.

But to call Ritchie’s performances during this World Cup consistent is to do them a gross disservice.

We knew he was good, but this good? The flanker’s form has been meteoric, one of the breakout flankers of this entire tournament, and all off the strength of just two appearances.

Against Samoa, a must-win game in Kobe a fortnight ago as Scotland fought to stay alive , Ritchie got his first start of the World Cup and hit the ground running.

Jonny Gray ended up being crowned the man of the match that night as Scotland held the Pacific Islanders scoreless.

But Ritchie was everywhere, turning ball over at the breakdown, breaking tackles and spinning away from defenders to re-ignite their knockout hopes.

His performance was so impressive that Townsend wrapped up him up in cotton wool for the Russia game so that he was raring to go on Sunday.

And against Japan he found another gear.

In the biggest game of the pool stages, on the biggest stage of all, despite being in a losing cause, Ritchie was everywhere.

He made 17 tackles in the first half alone, as he fought valiantly to repel the onrushing Brave Blossoms, finishing with 24, the most of any player in a remarkable defensive effort.

At times it must have felt like a task bordering on Sisyphean.

Ritchie added: “Japan are very good at keeping hold of the ball, you saw that at the back end of the first half, they were getting through phases and eventually broke us down.

“They obviously have a clear game plan and stick to it, their skills are good and they are very good at executing what they have planned.

“They were getting yards and we were struggling to slow them down.”

The stats said Ritchie also made three turnovers, in reality it was probably more, both on the ground and in the choke tackle, every time a Japanese attack was quelled there was Ritchie assisting if not turning the ball over outright.

He was unbowed and even belligerent under the brightest lights, taking on first Yu Tamua and then Kazuki Himeno mano a mano in the second half as Scotland tried to produce yet another stunning comeback.

It fell short in the end, but not for want of trying as Ritchie went the full 80 minutes, still appearing on ball carriers’ shoulders as the game stretched and Scotland threw everything into the fray.

The menacing showing was of little consolation to the man himself afterwards: “I will look at my own performance at some point, but I am just gutted that we lost the game,” he said.

But the key takeaway for Scotland is probably that Ritchie’s chance to shine at this tournament only really arrived after Hamish Watson went home injured.

The Edinburgh clubmates have been unfortunately kept apart in their short international careers.

Indeed only once in Ritchie’s 14 caps so far, an autumn win over Argentina last year, have Ritchie and Watson started together on the flanks for Scotland.

One day soon, both form and fitness will coalesce for the breakdown brothers and Townsend will hope to unleash them in tandem.

Then Scotland will surely be a force to be reckoned with.

Both have the all-round skillsets to complement one another, Ritchie has worn both 6 and 7 in his young international career already.

The youngster has clearly leapfrogged the likes of John Barclay and Ryan Wilson in the pecking order, the future of this Scotland team is his for the taking.

He will be back again on this stage, better for this experience. And in the bowels of the Yokohama Stadium on Sunday night, Ritchie sounded a word of warning.

“We are proud of the effort that we put in tonight. We will go back home and then we will come back firing.”