THERE may never have been a more inexperienced group of loosehead props and hookers in a Scotland matchday squad than the one Gregor Townsend is expected to name today for Saturday’s international against Samoa. Inexperienced when it comes to caps, with Stuart McInally the only one of the probable quartet to have made a full international appearance; and inexperienced, too, in terms of game time at professional level.
Prop Darryl Marfo, like his Edinburgh team-mate McInally, has been around for a few years, but Glasgow loosehead Jamie Bhatti is in his first season as a pro, while Warriors hooker George Turner is getting regular game time only now after seasons of frustration while on Edinburgh’s books. Neil Cochrane, called up as cover for McInally and Turner when Ross Ford was ruled out through injury, is in an international squad for the first time. Rory Sutherland has three caps, but is just back from injury himself, so may have to wait until next weekend to get into the 23.
With New Zealand and Australia to visit Murrayfield on successive Saturdays, the lack of Test-match experience is clearly a concern. It is reassuring, then, to note that although some of those forwards have seen little big-game action, they have all acquired a lot of mental toughness along the way.
McInally, for example, had to cope with some spells of serious disappointment in previous years before managing to hold down his place in the Edinburgh squad this season. In 2015 he was named in Vern Cotter’s squad for the Rugby World Cup, only to miss out through injury, then last season, despite being Edinburgh’s co-captain, he had only a handful of starts. Now he is benefitting from that regular run in the team, and is looking forward to continuing his fine current form against the Samoans.
“I’m just playing more, and that has helped my confidence,” the 27-year-old hooker said. “It’s the most settled I feel in Edinburgh, playing every week, and I owe a lot to [head coach and former hooker] Richard Cockerill. He took a bit of a gamble on me at the start of the year and he was happy for me to play, and play a lot, and that was great for me.
“I think at the start of this year the most I’d ever played at hooker was two games in a row. So it’s been really good to start the first four or five games, missed the Treviso home game, started every other one virtually since. A massive confidence-booster, getting the reps at training, lineouts and scrums and everything: forcing you to throw, to scrum, to run every rep, has been great for me in development.”
The pleasure that McInally has taken in his regular starts this year is in stark contrast to the crushing disappointment of the previous season, when even the good omen of being named as one of Edinburgh’s two skippers did not translate into regular game time. “I was named as co-captain at the start of the year,” he recalled.
“Home club, something I was desperate to do for a number of years, and to be named as co-captain was awesome. And then – just didn’t manage to get a starting spot all year. Think I started six games and was on the bench for maybe like 20.
“It was really frustrating, especially because of the ambitions I had to play for Scotland as well. Because I wasn’t playing for Edinburgh I wasn’t going to play for Scotland.
“It was a tough year, but that made me go back to square one, not too much pressure, just focusing on myself, and probably better for it. I’d say it was the toughest spell. Maybe the start of changing to hooker [from the back row] was tough too, but that was quite exciting as well: I knew the growth in front of me could be quite big. My expectations of how the year would go and how it actually went were so different.”
While McInally had that season of frustration, for his then Edinburgh team-mate Turner it was just the continuation of a far longer spell in which he was simply not given a chance to show what he could do at professional level. A fleeting opportunity came at the end of the campaign when Cockerill, by then appointed head coach but yet to formally take up the post, ensured that Turner was named in the team for one game. The real opportunity, however, has come this season, with Turner’s move to Glasgow – where, with Fraser Brown out injured, the 25-year-old has found favour with new coach Dave Rennie.
“I’m so pleased for George, because I’ve known for a long time what a good player he was and he never got a shot at Edinburgh, for whatever reason,” McInally continued. “I always knew that if he got a shot he’d do really well, and I’m so happy that he’s managed to get to Glasgow and get game after game after game. With Fraser out there’s been a huge opportunity for him to play.
“ I can’t speak highly enough of George: he works really hard and I know he was really frustrated at Edinburgh. I was frustrated on the bench and he was frustrated at not even playing. So we had a lot in common, not being where we wanted to be. I’m so glad he went to Glasgow and got a chance, and every time I see them he’s one of their best players.”
McInally is just as pleased for Cochrane, who these days doubles up as an assistant coach with Watsonians and has played an important role at Edinburgh as back-up to the other hookers. “I spend a lot of time with Neil – I have done since he arrived at Edinburgh three or four years ago.
“He’s just a great man to have around. If I ever need to do extra throwing or anything, he’ll always be there. Similar to Ross really – all the hookers work well together.
“I know Neil has dreamed of being in this set-up for years and never ever thought it was going to happen; he thought his time had gone, I know exactly how chuffed he is to get the call. Along with everyone at Edinburgh I’m so happy for him to get recognised. He’s a quality player and whenever he’s played for Edinburgh he’s been brilliant. Really pleased he’s here.”