STUART McINALLY admits that he was so emotionally bruised after Scotland’s disappointing World Cup campaign that he was left “never wanting to think about rugby ever again”. But now, after a six week break to get over the ordeal, he says he has fully recovered his hunger for the game, and is desperate to show that he is back to his best in this weekend’s eagerly-anticipated 1872 Cup clash against arch-rivals Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun.
The 29-year-old hooker, who was captain of the national squad during his first World Cup campaign in Japan, cut a forlorn figure at the Monday press conference after Scotland’s disastrous tournament opener against Ireland, when he struggled to articulate how the defeat had impacted both him and the squad. His form suffered and he ended up being relegated to the bench for Scotland’s all-or-nothing final pool match against Japan, with Fraser Brown starting in the No 2 jersey instead.
The whole trip was a desperately disappointing experience for a player who had consistently been one of Scotland’s stand-out performers during the previous two years.
The road to redemption began with an extended break from the game. On the night after the Japan defeat, he was told to get away from rugby as much as possible for the next few weeks, so he and his wife spent the next few weeks visiting friends and family in Australia, before McInally returned to action for Edinburgh six and a half weeks later against Munster at the end of last month – just in time to get back to full match-fitness for the now traditional inter-city double-header over the festive break.
“It’s amazing, you go from after the World Cup and never wanting to think about rugby ever again, to coming back to Edinburgh with your mates you play every day with … and the week of the Munster game I was buzzing to get back out there,” said McInally, speaking on Wednesday after attending a coaching clinic at his old school, George Watson’s College, held to help promote the 1872 Cup second-leg clash at Murrayfield on 28th December.
“That showed to me the importance of having that rest,” he continued. “Cockers [Edinburgh head coach Richard Cockerill] was great as well. I phoned him straight away and thanked him for the time off. He shared with me some of his experiences when he’d come back and played too soon and ended up wanting to pack it in, so he was very aware that I needed a bit of time to relax and I was really grateful for that.
“He just said: ‘Go away, don’t do anything for two weeks, just enjoy some time with family and friends, then give me a call when you get back and we’ll get you some training to do’.
“Physically I was fine, it was the mental strain of not just the World Cup but also the eight to 10 weeks of training previous to that … that was why I needed a bit of time to breathe and not think about strategies and practicing my throwing every day and stuff like that.
“I turned the phone off, turned social media off, and just enjoyed time with family. The World Cup is such a big media thing, even if you don’t read the press, you’re on social media and someone will have retweeted something and so you see everything. So, it was really nice to go out and not have to worry about having a glass of wine with your meal, and just be able to relax and enjoy yourself.”
Steep learning curve
While McInally is clearly in a much better head space than the one he was inhabiting immediately after the World Cup, he was noticeably cautious when asked if the chastising experience would cause him to have second thoughts about accepting any offer which might come from national head coach Gregor Townsend to continue in the captaincy role during the upcoming Six Nations.
“I’d want to speak to Gregor. If that conversation came up, I’d think about it, but I haven’t thought about it yet. We have had conversations but nothing about the captaincy,” he said.
“It was an experience that I’d never had to handle before,” explained McInally, as he looked back at the whole World Cup experience. “The pressure was on us straight away after the Ireland match because we played so poorly. Each game became a ‘must win’ rather than us trying to build on a good win against Ireland, so it was really tough.
“You do two months or more of prep, effectively for one game. We were so desperate to do well in that Ireland game and then to play so poorly was the hardest part because you do all that training and then think ‘what is going on?’ It hit me pretty hard and was a big learning curve.
“What I have learned is my leadership is based on what makes me play well. When I play well that is when I lead the best.”
Getting back on the horse
He may feel more certain about his future role in the national team in 10 days’ time, by which point he will have twice gone head-to-head against his old friend and rival Brown during the first two instalments of this season’s three-part 1872 Cup series (the final match is at the end of May).
Cockerill got into pantomime villain mode on Tuesday when suggesting that Brown has a tendency to try to influence referees, but McInally nimbly side-stepped the question.
“Fraz [Brown] is such a great player, he’s a very good scrummager, a very good line-out thrower and excellent over ball so it’s going to be a great challenge,” he said. “He’s ruthless on the pitch and someone I’ve got so much respect for. He works so hard and I know he cares a lot about Glasgow. He’s a big voice in the changing room.
“I have a really good relationship with him. Even since the World Cup, we’ve met up for coffee. We’re good mates and I’m looking forward to catching up with him after the game. At the same time, it’ll be a good test for me to see where I am at this moment in time.
“It’s always a good battle. I think he was injured this time last year, so we didn’t go against each other, but the year before was great. It’s Christmas, you play Glasgow, you love it.”