Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend assured Jamie Ritchie he still had a part to play in the Six Nations after the recently-deposed captain was omitted from the 23-man squad for Saturday’s Murrayfield showdown with France.
The 27-year-old Edinburgh flanker was informed last month that he would not be continuing as skipper due to no longer being guaranteed a place in the back-row amid intense competition for places, with Rory Darge and Finn Russell taking over as co-captains.
Ritchie started last weekend’s 27-26 victory away to Wales but he is the only player to have dropped out of the team for this weekend’s match, apart from Luke Crosbie and Richie Gray, who both sustained tournament-ending injuries in Cardiff.
Glasgow back-row duo Jack Dempsey and Darge – fit again after six weeks out with a knee injury – replace Edinburgh pair Crosbie and Ritchie, with Grant Gilchrist stepping in for fellow lock Gray. Saracens back-row Andy Christie has got the nod to be the substitute back-row option.
Asked to clarify that Ritchie was not absent due to injury, Townsend said on Thursday: “No, just selection.
“Once we knew Luke was going to be ruled out and Rory was available we had a good look at the back-row and what the best blend would be and we’ve gone with a Glasgow back-row (of Matt Fagerson, Darge and Dempsey).
“The cohesion they have, knowing each other’s games and most importantly the blend they have. Rory’s an out-and-out seven who can carry the ball well – he’s got an all-round game – but we feel the carrying strengths of Matt and Jack give us a better mix this week.
When it was put to him that Ritchie had endured a pretty spectacular fall from grace after going from World Cup captain just six months ago to not making the 23, Townsend pointed out: “He was vice-captain last week and part of a very good performance in those first 45 minutes.
“He helped Finn with his leadership, really helped the team in the week and then played well.
“I felt he wasn’t able to get his strengths out because of the way the game was being refereed. Wales managed to get a number of penalties in the tackle area, we weren’t getting any.
“I’m sure Jamie would have had a bigger influence if the game had been refereed differently.
“It’s really just about the blend this week. Jamie responded outstandingly well as a person and team-mate but also in the way he’s trained and played in the last couple of games. He’ll be in the mix again for the game against England.”
Scotland and France met in three dramatic encounters last year. The Scots have won five of their last seven Murrayfield meetings with Les Bleus.
Townsend is expecting a response from the French following their 38-17 defeat at home to Ireland last weekend.
“We know them as well as any team we’ll come up against,” he said. “This will be the fourth game in a year.
“We’ve had some cracking games with them in the last 12 months and we’ll have to be at our best level physically, in defence and in the contact area, because they have a lot of jackalers in their team.
“From the French perspective, they know they didn’t play their best rugby so I would imagine we’ll get a reaction from that.
“They came back at one stage – even with 14 on the field – but we know that with 15 on the field they are a quality team, still a top-three, top-four team in the world.”