In the warm-up – a laughable term on this particular occasion – before the game in the Kobe-Misaki Stadium it was impossible not to notice Jamie Ritchie.
The warm-up prior to the Ireland game had, on the admission of Gregor Townsend, been lethargic, an indicator of what was to come in that game. Ritchie appeared on a mission to ensure it wasn’t to be like that this time.
He sprinted across the pitch to be first in position for the handling practice, tossing out the first pass. As the team walked in to the expectant applause of the Scottish travelling support, Ritchie could be seen exhorting his team-mates.
It might have just been Ritchie’s youthful enthusiasm – he’s been around for so long it’s easy to forget he’s still just 23 – or he might have been genuinely excited by the fact he was making an appearance in a Rugby World Cup, because three weeks ago it seemed he might not make it.
Getting a facial injury in the final warm-up game against Georgia in the same week he’d been confirmed as a squad member, having to stay behind when the team flew out for treatment, joining the squad late, too late to be considered for the opening game – it’s not been the easiest of times for the St Andrews native.
But he was the main part of an outstanding Scottish back row performance against the Samoans, the same area the Scots had been so lacking in Yokohama that Gregor Townsend had been pretty much forced to omit two of his trusted and experienced lieutenants in Ryan Wilson and John Barclay.
There was just 23 caps’ worth of experience in the back row in Kobe, and Ritchie was the elder statesman. But he proved himself worthy of being called the first-choice, as he really has been this last international season when Gregor Townsend earlier this week described him as being “our most consistent player”.
He was at the core of the tackle count, did his share of carrying and clearouts, and made two key steals of ball on the deck, one stemming a scrambling situation after Finn Russell had fumbled a routine ball in his own half. Jackalling hasn’t been one of his major attributes in Ritchie’s career so far but he’s been picking up on the example of Edinburgh and Scotland team-mate Hamish Watson.
He was also on Russell’s shoulder when the stand-off made a half break to be the link for Greig Laidlaw’s try, the score that took Scotland to a position of safety.
Ritchie probably should have been man of the match, as while he didn’t have the totals put up by the indefatigable Jonny Gray, the impact of what he did so was so much more significant.
Kobe might have been the night that Jamie Ritchie stopped being regarded as decent cover for injured regulars, and became a deserved regular himself.
Sean’s smart thinking
How important was Sean Maitland’s clever finish which led to the bonus point try in Kobe? It just might be the difference between Scotland qualifying for the semi-finals or not.
Maitland made his dive for the corner early, figuring that the greasy turf would allow his momentum to take him over the line.
As the Samoa head coach Steve Jackson pointed out later, Ed Fidow, the Samoan wing, was left in a fairly hopeless position to legally stop him scoring, and after a check with the TMO it was clear that he hadn’t.
The bonus try secured by Maitland’s instinctive thinking might be very important indeed. Another bonus against Russia could be secured, and if things work out it may be that only a victory over Japan would be needed to take Scotland into the quarter-finals.