Just a couple of weeks ago, when it was announced that Jamie Ritchie had lost the Scotland captaincy, it was widely expected that the decision to demote him would be reflected in the team selection for this Six Nations opener in Cardiff.
Gregor Townsend freely admitted that Ritchie’s dip in form over the past year or so meant that he was no longer guaranteed to get into Scotland’s first-choice XV.
The head coach challenged the back-rower to knuckle down and get back to playing his best rugby after putting him back among the rank and file.
Just a few days later, a second-half cameo off the bench for Edinburgh in their Challenge Cup victory over Scarlets in Llanelli didn’t necessarily feel like vintage Ritchie. Nonetheless, the 27-year-old will now return to Wales this weekend after being handed a surprise lifeline by Townsend. It represents quite the U-turn from the head coach, particularly given the make-up of the various pieces in Scotland’s back row.
Normally a six by trade, Ritchie is shifted to openside. Luke Crosbie gets the nod in Ritchie’s normal slot at blindside, with Matt Fagerson at No 8.
Jamie Ritchie is a surprise inclusion in Gregor Townsend’s Six Nations XV to face Wales
The head coach has put together an unpredictable back row for Scotland’s first Test after last year’s World Cup
Both Andy Christie (left) and Joshu Bayliss (right) have been omitted from the squad altogether
Meanwhile, Andy Christie and Josh Bayliss, two of the form back-rowers in Europe over the past month and two players about whom Townsend has spoken in glowing terms, aren’t in the squad at all.
Truthfully, if you asked 100 people what Scotland’s back row would look like to play Wales this weekend, nobody would have settled on this combination.
But as his side go in search of a first victory in Cardiff since 2002, Townsend has challenged former captain Ritchie to recapture his best form and inspire the Scots to an opening-day win.
‘Jamie’s been excellent in training,’ said Townsend. ‘That comes through the skill he has shown, the effort. We see it from our coaching viewpoint but also through GPS and things like that.
‘He’s worked really hard and his performance against Scarlets off the bench just showed the hunger and desire he has to get back to his best rugby.
‘Part of the reason that he is no longer captain is not so much his performances but the performances of others.
‘We’ve got so much competition in the back row and it wasn’t guaranteed he would be in the starting team. But we know how well he’s played for Scotland in the past and we believe he’s getting back into that form now.
‘He’s had a real positive reaction to the challenge and the news that someone else, or two people, were going to take over the captaincy.’
With Ritchie’s demotion, it will be Finn Russell who is entrusted with the Scotland captaincy at the Principality Stadium.
Townsend confirmed yesterday that fellow vice-captain Rory Darge should return next weekend against France.
But there was bad news elsewhere in the squad after it was revealed that Blair Kinghorn will miss the first two games due to a knee injury.
Finn Russell will take up the captain’s armback for Scotland’s kick-off game in Cardiff
Blair Kinghorn – who will miss the first two games due to injury – is an asset Townsend will be loath to lose
The back three is already missing a key player, given that Darcy Graham will also miss the first two rounds due to a thigh injury.
Glasgow Warriors flyer Kyle Rowe starts at full-back but, with Ollie Smith out and Stuart Hogg retired, Kinghorn’s injury exposes the lack of options when it comes to a specialist 15.
‘With Blair, we believe it is a three-to-four week injury, so, if he progresses well with his rehab and recovery, he should be available for England,’ said Townsend.
‘Rory is good now. He’s ticked everything off. This game came a few days too soon for him, but he’ll be training next week.’
Ben White has recovered from a shoulder injury he picked up for Toulon last weekend and partners captain Russell in the half-backs.
Sione Tuipulotu and Huw Jones are selected together in midfield and will look to recapture the electric form which saw them light up last year’s Championship.
Cameron Redpath has been in excellent form for Bath, where he plays alongside Russell, but he has to settle for a place on the bench.
But, backing the ‘Huwipulotu’ partnership to shine once again, Townsend said: ‘Huw has been excellent for us for a number of games now. He played really well when he was on the wing for Glasgow recently.
‘He’s one of our best defenders now. He has grown so much in that position and his connection with Sione is so important.
‘Both of them have done so much for us over the past year and have good form together coming into the Championship.
‘Cam is knocking on the door. He’s had a really good season, but those are the guys in possession of the jersey at the moment.
A number of the squad – including Elliot Millar-Mills (right) have limited or no Test experience
Wales head coach Warren Gatland (left) has been frustrated by Scotland’s decision to keep the roof off
‘We believe that cohesion and continuity is important coming into a championship.’
Elsewhere, uncapped props Alec Hepburn (30) of Exeter Chiefs and Elliot Millar-Mills (31) of Northampton will both make their debut off the bench.
Townsend refuted any suggestions, however, that having a lack of Test experience among the replacement front-rowers might represent a risk.
He said: ‘We’ve got experience in Elliot and Alec in terms of their age and in terms of how many games of rugby they’ve played.
‘Alec has obviously played international rugby before (for England). Elliot has also been in excellent form for Northampton this year.
‘Alec brings real energy with his speed and his carrying. We know he’ll add something off the bench in that last quarter of the game.’
Opting to keep the roof open, much to the ire of Wales head coach Warren Gatland, the Scots will be strongly fancied to kick off with a win despite their poor record in Cardiff.
Against a Wales team in transition and without many of their star names of yesteryear, Townsend insists his team will be ready to cope with the expectation.
‘I think that would be the expectation in the group, but we also expect a really tough game, and we expect to be challenged physically and mentally,’ he said.
‘We expect the game not to go perfectly — the first game of the Championship — so all these things are out there and it is about how we deal with them. How we bounce back to get into our way of playing in attack and defence, how we are together during those tough moments.
‘That’s the challenge, and it is a challenge we have been addressing for a while.
‘It was a big learning from the World Cup, so we get a perfect chance to deliver on what we’ve been working on this weekend.
‘Wales had a good World Cup with a terrific result against Australia and they were building towards that.
Townsend stressed that he has been focusing on the team itself with his players rather than their Welsh opponents
‘They will be disappointed to have lost the quarter-final, but with a home game up first and a fresh team, they will come firing into it.
‘I don’t think we talk about why we have struggled here in the past, but we have talked about the record and the fact we have to do something about that.
‘We also have to embrace the challenge that playing in this stadium brings, playing against a very passionate side.
‘But most of this week has been about ourselves.’