Six Nations: Scotland's Jamie Ritchie on off-field trauma and growing up fast

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland
Jamie Ritchie in action for Scotland in a narrow opening loss to Ireland
Scotland back-row Jamie Ritchie will win his 18th cap in Sunday's Six Nations visit of France
Six Nations: Scotland v France
Venue: Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh Date: Sunday, 8 March Kick-off: 15:00 GMT
Coverage: Live on BBC TV, BBC Radio 5 live, Radio Scotland & BBC Sport website & app

These are the things we don't see. We don't see the disappointment on Jamie Ritchie's face when told that the injury he picked up against Wales in the penultimate round of last season's Six Nations is going to rule him out for a little while.

We don't see the shock and worry when he hears soon after that his father has cancer and then, a week later, that his step-mother also has cancer.

We don't have any idea how he is feeling as he awaits news of the back surgery of his wee half-sister Rebecca in London around the same time. It's a second operation after the one in a specialist hospital in Philadelphia two years before, the one where the surgeons in trying to fix the curvature in her spine encountered complexities that saw her having to be brought back to life twice, before being removed to a unit where she spent three days in a coma.

"So I was pretty flat around that time," says Ritchie, which in terms of understatements is probably the Triple Crown, the Six Nations and the Grand Slam all rolled into one giant package. All family members are good now, he reports. All happy and well, but that kind of thing tends to give you perspective, not that Ritchie was short of it.

'I just started crying'

We'll get around to the French at Murrayfield on Sunday, but we're not quite done with the story of his life as opposed to the story of his rugby life. He'll talk about his impending battle with Francois Cros of Toulouse, Charles Ollivon of Toulon and Gregory Alldritt of La Rochelle. But first he talks about Millie, the girl he met in Heathrow Terminal 5 when he was 15, the girl who became his girlfriend and now his fiancée and the mother of his children, Oscar and Ava.

"I was swanning around Heathrow on the way back from a rugby trip and the flight was delayed," he recalls. "Adam Hastings and a few other boys were with me. We saw this girl with her family and one of the lads said, 'She's really fit, I wouldn't mind getting her number', so I said, 'I'll go over and get it'. I asked her, but she wouldn't give it to me. When I was walking over I hadn't a clue where she was from, but she was Scottish."

His mate, the one looking for the introduction, didn't stand a chance. In the ruck for Millie's affections, Ritchie shoed him out of there. "She didn't give me her number, but she told me her name and I found her on Facebook and we went from there. Millie is from Ayr, but as luck would have it she ended up moving to close to where I was. We got pregnant when we were 18, had Oscar at 19 in 2015 and now we have Ava as well."

Honestly, we'll get to the French soon enough, but there's more of this back story you might want to hear. Millie went into labour with Oscar four weeks prematurely. It was a Friday night. Ritchie was due to make his first start for Edinburgh the following day in a Challenge Cup game at London Irish.

Into the hospital they went and in the hospital they stayed. It was 2am when the staff told Ritchie that the baby's arrival wasn't imminent and that he should get some sleep, go to London, play his game and come back. He hit his bed at 4am and was up at 6am for a flight. Sitting on the plane before take-off he reached into his pocket to put his phone on flight mode when it stared to ring. 'Millie calling...' Oscar had been born.

"I couldn't get off the plane at that stage and I think I just started crying. I was only 19. Everything is a blur now. I played the game - we got hosed - and came back up straight away. A total whirlwind. I slept in the hospital for a few nights because Oscar was in intensive care, but it all worked out great.

"We had to grow up quickly. When we found out we were pregnant it was a shock, but we'd chatted about moving in together before that so we were ready. Millie had to take a year off university, she was studying Business at Strathclyde, then went back and then we got pregnant with Ava and she took another year off and went back again and finished it. Incredible, really. I'm very, very lucky. She's made huge sacrifices to allow me to play rugby."

Ritchie is just about the most together 23-year-old you'll find. He makes the point that becoming a dad so early in life has brought so many advantages, among them the delight of knowing that with so much of his career still ahead of him his kids will get to live it with him in real time rather than reliving it once he's retired.

Early fatherhood also meant the avoidance of some of the traps that young players can find. He has never tied himself up in knots by over-thinking his rugby. "Young guys can beat themselves up a bit, but when I was finished training I had a second job at home and I needed to be on the ball for it. I couldn't sit and worry about rugby."

'A domino effect of bad things can happen'

Jamie Ritchie graphic

Ritchie's belligerence is going to be at the heart of this Scotland team for years to come. His work-rate, his honesty, his carrying, his defence - he's getting better all the time. He could be a Scottish captain, everybody says it. He has that quality.

Right now, he's thinking about France on Sunday. Previous experiences? Not good. He was in the team that got horsed in Paris in the Six Nations last season and he played in the pre-World Cup game in Nice as well - another beating. Scotland conceded nine tries in those games, a stat that almost makes him wince.

"Before the game in Paris I remember talking about how we needed to start well and then we had a loose kick-chase and they capitalised on it. They got the foothold they were looking for. In Nice, we struggled to slow them down and they got momentum and once you give France a bit of momentum then they tend to do well. That's a lesson.

"The thing you have to understand is that players don't go out to play badly. It hurts us more because we're the ones in the spotlight. When you don't perform it's not just a game you've lost for your country, there's potentially a whole domino effect of bad things that can happen - loss of place, loss of job security. It can be a bit of a rollercoaster of a life. You have to find a way of not allowing it to get caught up in your head."

He says things have changed in the Scotland camp these days. After the World Cup the clear message in the debrief was that they had to become harder to beat and had to learn how to stop beating themselves. Improving the defence became the obsession. Two tries conceded in three games is an encouraging start.

"We've bred a mentality around our defence now and Steve Tandy (defence coach) deserves a lot of credit. After the World Cup we had a good look at ourselves and that was the thing that was brought up the most. Conversion in attack has been an issue, but we'll take confidence from winning in Italy.

"France look very strong but we've won the last three against them at Murrayfield. I know they've got a new team now and they're playing differently and playing really well, but we want to be the one that stops them getting the Grand Slam. It'll be a huge test of where we're at."

Time in his company leaves you with an unmistakeable impression that he's ready for it.

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