Jamie Ritchie has declared himself fit and ready to lead Scotland into the Rugby World Cup after shaking off his recent calf issue.
The captain sat out the previous two warm-up matches at home to Italy and France as a precaution after what he described as “a little niggle” but he returns to the starting XV for this Saturday night’s rematch with Les Bleus in the heat of Saint-Etienne.
Ritchie is raring to go ahead of his first outing since playing for Edinburgh in a United Rugby Championship match away to Ulster almost four months ago.
“I feel like I’ve had a good pre-season and I’m feeling good, really excited to get back playing,” he said at the captain’s run press conference at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard on Friday.
“I’ve been sad to miss out the last couple of weeks because I was looking forward to getting a run out at Murrayfield but I have had to wait until this week so I’m really excited to get going.”
Ritchie insists there was never any fear that the injury would cause him any major problems ahead of the World Cup, which gets under way in France in four weeks’ time.
“No, not really,” he said when asked if he was worried about being fit in time. “It was just a little niggle I picked up in the week of the Italy match.
“It was probably touch and go for the home game against France, we were just erring on the side of caution. I was always going to be good to go for this week.”
Head coach Gregor Townsend said on Thursday that Ritchie is “probably in the best shape I’ve seen him in the last few years”.
“That’s kind of him,” smiled the captain when asked if he agreed with Townsend. “I need to ask my wife! Yeah, I feel good. It’s been good to have an extended pre-season.
“I got more or less a full pre-season in last year post-injury but the start of that was probably inhibited by the fact I’d been out for eight months (with a serious hamstring injury sustained against England in February 2022) so this is the first full pre-season I’ve had off the back of a full season of playing.
“I’m feeling in good shape and looking forward to getting going.”
Scotland spent the early part of this week at their World Cup training base near Nice before flying up to Saint-Etienne, where they found temperatures in the high 20s as they went through their team run on Friday.
Although Saturday’s match kicks off at 9pm, balmy conditions are expected. Ritchie feels the heat his team have been exposed to this week – and on their previous trip to the south of France in June – will stand them in good stead for the demands of the tournament itself.
“Massively, it means we’re adapted to what it’s going to be like out here, particularly on the training side of things (when they’ll be in the south of France).
“We’re playing in different parts of the country and the game tomorrow is in the evening so it might not be in the direct sunlight. Hopefully we’ll be a bit more acclimatised to the heat but not feeling that direct sunlight.
“We’re in a great place, our training sessions have been consistent, they’ve started well and they’ve finished well. There’s not been a session where we’ve dropped off, even in the heat, which is testament to the guys’ fitness and how hard we’ve worked.”
Ritchie feels Scotland’s fitness was highlighted by their stirring second-half fightback against the French last weekend when they scored 22 unanswered points to win 25-21 after trailing 21-3 at the break.
The 26-year-old flanker is hoping they can build on that performance and pull off another victory even though Les Bleus have selected arguably their strongest XV for this weekend after fielding a predominantly second-string team in Edinburgh.
“We take loads of confidence from last week in that we didn’t necessarily start that well but we fought to come back and have a really great finish,” said Ritchie.
“Our fitness showed in that game, we really started to peak towards the end and played some of our best stuff.
“We also felt we were the better team in the Six Nations (when losing 32-21 in Paris in February) and we’ll be looking to show it tomorrow.”