Challenge Cup preview: Rambo rides again

Image: Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

IN Edinburgh Rugby’s last match before getting this season’s Challenge Cup campaign under way with a trip south to take on London Irish, there was a couple of poignant reminders of the capital outfit’s greatest ever European campaign.

Firstly, the arrival of Zebre to the Scottish capital on Friday night brought with it a familiar face in head coach Michael Bradley, who also happened to be at the helm for Edinburgh during their completely unexpected march to the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup back in 2011-12 season.

Zebre head coach Michael Bradley has a chat with his former Edinburgh player Roddy Grant – who is now on then coaching staff at the Scottish capital. Image: ©Craig Watson – www.craigwatson.co.uk

But even more nostalgic was the home team’s only try in a tense 16-15 victory, which consisted of hooker Stuart McInally –nicknamed Rambo – making a midfield break and charging home from 45-metres. That sparked happy memories of a similar score in the opening game of the 2011-12 Heineken Cup campaign, which ultimately led to his team’s flying start to the campaign with a shock 19-20 victory over London Irish in Reading.

“This one felt like maybe a wee bit further out [than the London Irish try]. That was a long time ago and I’m definitely older – the lungs felt it more,” chuckled McInally after Friday night’s game.

A quick check of the records confirms that the previous effort was indeed from a much shorter distance of around 25 yards, but also reminds us that this was the day when McInally – who had celebrated his 21st birthday three days earlier – was widely praised for coming of age as a professional player, after stepping up to the plate as the back-row’s key ball carrier when Dave Denton was shoulder charged out of the match by Shontayne Hape.

Edinburgh have fairly been through the mill since that remarkable season, and even McInally – as one of the few constants in the squad – has undergone a major transformation in moving from number eight to hooker.

The logic of that switch in the summer of 2013 was that there would be more opportunity for him to get game time in the number two jersey, which would ultimately allow him develop into the front-line international competitor he had been earmarked as since his teenage years.

But it didn’t quite work out like that.

After a year farmed out to Bristol, McInally returned to the Scottish capital to play big time rugby, but was only given 44 appearances in three years – and crucially only 13 starts – by the ultra-conservative Alan Solomons. He has picked up nine Scotland caps, but six of them have ben off the bench. His cameos throughout the 2016 Six Nations campaign are his only competitive international appearances.

Richard Cockerill – a former international hooker himself – has seen things differently since taking over in the summer, with McInally starting five of the team’s six league games so far this season, missing only the Benetton Treviso debacle with a short-term injury.

“I’m playing more and if I play more I think I’ll improve. Richard puts a lot of pressure on me at training on my throwing, so I get loads of reps, which is great, and if I don’t nail one he’s at me and he wants me to throw it again and again until I get it, so it’s good. I think the lineouts were good tonight, so I’m definitely improving,” he says.

That may very well be the case, but he wouldn’t be getting this sort of game time unless his all round contribution – and not just his line-out work – was up to scratch.

Stuart McInally pick up the Guinness PRO14 Man-of-the-Match award after an all-action display against Zebre on Friday night.  Image: Craig Watson – www.craigwatson.co.uk

Cockerill has made no secret of his vision for Edinburgh moving forward under his tutelage, with young players who want to prove themselves being given their head. At 27, McInally is no longer in the first flush of youth, but he still has a few good years left in the tank and has no interest in wasting his time looking back wistfully to the day he was a member of the team listed at the bottom of this article. He is fully focused instead on the here and now.

“This feels totally different, to be honest. Back then it was the Heineken Cup and not to take anything away from the Challenge Cup but it’s not where we want to be playing,” he states. “We want to be playing in that top tier of Europe, but we’ve got to be realistic about  where we are at the moment, we’re in the Challenge Cup and we’re in a rebuilding phase and for me that’s really exciting because we’ve got so much room for improvement. So it’s quite exciting that we can learn our lessons from that and get into Europe [the Champions Cup] next season. It’ll be fun.”

In truth, the 2011-12 season wasn’t all good fun, either. Edinburgh’s league form was bloody awful. They ended up 11th in a 12 team league with just six wins from 22 games. But there was hope, and that is vital.

There is hope again, and a big win next weekend would be a huge boost to selling the dream.

  • Edinburgh team which defeated London Irish 19-20 on 12th November 2011: J Thompson; L Jones, N De Luca, M Scott, T Visser; H Leonard, M Blair; A Jacobsen, R Ford©, G Cross, E Lozada, G Gilchrist, D Denton, R Rennie, S McInally. Subs: S Lawries, K Traynor, L Niven, S Cox, R Grant, G Laidlaw, J King, T Brown.
About David Barnes 2971 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including he Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.