Jamie Ritchie debuts for Edinburgh in agonising loss

David Mele kicks the winning penalty from 40 metres. Roddy Grant scored Edinburgh's try, below, but later went off injured
David Mele kicks the winning penalty from 40 metres. Roddy Grant scored Edinburgh's try, below, but later went off injured
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Jamie Ritchie joined an elite group of teenagers to have turned out for Edinburgh when he debuted in an agonising 10-11 pre-season friendly defeat by Leicester Tigers at Melrose.

Back row Ritchie only turned 18 a week ago and by coming on as a 60th-minute substitute in a hard and intense struggle which hung in the balance until David Mele’s last-kick penalty winner, he eclipsed Jamie Farndale who was 18 years and two months when introduced against Cardiff in 2012.

Many believe Ritchie, who has another two seasons with the national under-20 squad, is at the start of a journey that could lead to dizzy heights.

Certainly he didn’t look out of place even though he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry in the wake of Edinburgh snatching defeat from the jaws of victory when a scrum went down presenting Mele with a chance he grabbed from 40 metres out.

“To lose it at the end was really frustrating but I really enjoyed the experience,” said the lad who, six months ago, was playing school rugby for Strathallan. “At one point I looked up from the ground and saw (British and Irish Lions centre) Manu Tuilagi and thought ‘I’ve seen you on the telly!’ But I tried to look at an opponent’s chest and legs when I was tackling and not think about who I was playing.

“Near the end with the ball going through the hands was when I really thought ‘this is a bit surreal’. It was definitely a lot faster and more physical than school rugby not least because the boys running at you carry a few more kilogrammes!

“I’d love now to get a start for the team but just to be involved is amazing.”

A player since Primary 3, Ritchie began to think of a pro career as he advanced through the national age-groups.

“For a while it was in the back of my head that I could be a pro but I didn’t really think it would happen until I had a meeting with (Edinburgh coach) Alan Solomons and he offered me the chance to be full time.

“Even with the chance to do a university course in sports science it was hard to turn down full time rugby. Studies can be done but over a longer period and I think I have made the right decision.”

Certainly Ritchie eclipses the likes of fellow forwards Robin Hislop, Rob McAlpine and David Denton who had to wait until their early 20s to represent Edinburgh and his arrival adds weight to Solomons’ pledge to integrate local talent alongside imported experience.

That was only one aspect of proceedings to please Solomons albeit he could have done without seeing flanker Roddy Grant leave the Greenyards with his arm in a sling after suffering a shoulder injury.

Grant had notched Edinburgh’s try (below) which cancelled out one by 19 and a half stone Samoan prop Logovi’i Mulipola and even when Freddie Burns added a penalty to put Leicester 8-0 ahead in front of a crowd of 3381 the contest remained intense and competitive.

Some pre-season friendlies degenerate into something fast and loose but Edinburgh kept their shape helped by a solid scrum in giving every bit as good as they got in all forward aspects. Rookie loose-head prop Rory Sutherland impressed in an 80-minute debut while locks Ollie Atkins and Fraser McKenzie grafted incessantly and flanker Hamish Watson was well worth a man-of-the-match prize with his keen support running and aggressive carrying.

Grant’s try, converted by Greig Tonks, pulled Edinburgh back and a second-half penalty by Tom Heathcote looked like being the match winner especially as home fans were treated to the sight of some fierce mauling.

Some additional creativity in midfield is required to do justice to the additional grunt being cultivated up front for all that Nick McLennan put in an eye-catching full-back shift with Brett Thompson showing flashes of promise on the wing. But the prospect of Edinburgh being able to bully sides into submission is an appealing one.

Tigers coach Richard Cockerill thought his side, which contained other England caps Tom Croft, Geoff Parling and Tom Youngs as well as Tuilagi and Burns, had been given a searching examination, insisting: “Edinburgh played very well and we had to dig deep.”

Edinburgh squad: McLennan, Fife, Dean, Strauss, Visser, Tonks, Kennedy, Sutherland, Ford (captain), Andress, McKenzie, Atkins, Grant, Du Preez, Watson, Hilterbrand, Berghan, B Toolis, A Toolis, Ritchie, Hidalgo-Clyne, Heathcote, Beard, Dominguez, Thompson, Holyland, Bezuidenhout.

Leicester squad: Scully, Morris, Smith, Tuilagi, Bai, Goneva, Burns, B Youngs (captain), Sio, Ghiraldini, Mulipola, De Chaves, Parling, Croft, Salvi Barbieri, T Youngs, Brugnera, Balmain, Wels, Carane, Mele, Pole, Williams, Bristow, Briggs, Pasquali, Owen, Milne, Harrison.

Referee: A McMenemy.