Edinburgh v Glasgow: Stuart McInally sings praises of rival Grant Stewart

Home front-row look stronger in 1872 Cup line-ups but Scotland hooker is taking nothing for granted

Stuart McInally prepares to scrum down for Edinburgh.
Stuart McInally prepares to scrum down for Edinburgh. Image: © Craig Watson. www.craigwatson.co.uk

IF there is one area in which Edinburgh look liking having a distinct advantage over Glasgow on Saturday, it is surely the front row. Stuart McInally is Scotland’s first-choice hooker: Grant Stewart is Glasgow’s third choice. Pierre Schoeman is the country’s in-form loosehead: Siua Halanukonuka, likely to be up against him at tighthead for the Warriors, struggled in the set piece against Lyon last week. And Willem Nel is the national team’s first-choice No 3: he may have more formidable opposition in the shape of Glasgow loosehead Oli Kebble, but he also has high-quality back-up in Simon Berghan.

But nothing is ever quite so simple on the pitch as it appears on paper, of course, and it should be pointed out that a week earlier in France, Halanukonuka had a major impact off the bench when he replaced D’Arcy Rae for the final half-hour of Glasgow’s 42-22 win over Lyon. And, although he is massively more experienced than his opposite number, McInally is certainly far too canny a character to take anything for granted. Of course it is a blow to the Warriors that Fraser Brown is definitely out and George Turner is also probably absent, both those hookers having been injured over the past two weeks. But McInally has first-hand experience of Stewart, and has every respect for the 23-year-old.

“Sad that Fraser and George both seem to be out, but I know Grant Stewart well from the summer tour where I worked with him a bit,” the Edinburgh captain said. “He’s an excellent player who has been playing really well, and had a good game against the Ospreys and he came on at the weekend against Lyon.

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“He’s a very capable young player – somebody we’ll be watching closely. They have real quality there in Fraser and George, but Grant is a very good young player who people maybe don’t know too much about, so it will be a different type of challenge.”

The Edinburgh front row themselves constitute a different type of challenge to opponents compared to last season. McInally himself goes from strength to strength both in terms of his individual contribution and his leadership role, Schoeman’s dynamism in the loose has been a revelation, and Nel is back close to the top of his game again. It is a formidable combination, and the captain himself has nothing but praise either side of him, insisting they make his job a whole lot easier.

Team effort

“[Nel] has been excellent for us – he really is back to his best. Scrummaging is a dream with him. He’s so so strong and so proud to be a tighthead prop: he doesn’t go back in the scrum ever, which is great for me as a hooker. Defensively he has improved a lot and he’s getting back to the standards he holds himself to, which is great.

“Pierre is such a good character to have in the squad, very energetic and positive. He brings a lot of energy to training – even when the weather’s not the best he’s always got a smile on his face. He’s a very tough man, trains very hard and is improving all the time.

“He was already a great player, but since coming over here I think his ball-carrying has been excellent; his tackling and scrummaging as well. And we’ve obviously got Allan Dell as well, who played well at the weekend. Whoever plays in that front row, we tend to enjoy working together.”

It was not too long ago that Edinburgh frequently looked like a team who were not enjoying their work at all, but head coach Richard Cockerill has changed all that thanks to his work ethic. The formula is simple, really: the harder you work, the more capable you will be of performing on the day; and the better you perform, the more enjoyment you will take from your work.

It was a formula that certainly paid dividends against Newcastle in the Champions Cup double-header, with Cockerill’s team winning home and away. Those results have certainly done Edinburgh’s morale no harm, and McInally believes the very fact of playing in Europe’s premier competition has been useful to the team, who last season had to make do with the Challenge Cup.

Keeping up the habit

“It certainly helps us. Going down to Kingston Park at the weekend against a fully loaded Newcastle team was a really tough match; we had to work really hard to get that win and that is exactly what we expect this week too. We’ll have to be at our best and work really hard to beat Glasgow, who’ve been going really well in the PRO14 and in Europe as well.

“It will definitely help us playing at the top table, so to speak. The fact that we have come off the back of two wins is brilliant and will build momentum. Winning tends to be a habit and is a good habit that we want to keep going.”

It is a habit that Edinburgh need to keep going, too, if they are to get back into contention for a place in the play-offs. Fifth at the minute in Conference B, they have won just four of their 10 matches. If that becomes six out of 12 with wins at Murrayfield this weekend and Scotstoun next, the position will become a lot healthier.

“We’re still halfway through the year, but we have some catching up to do in the league,” McInally accepted. “We need to get some wins. We need some points to get us up into the top half of the table so that we can be in the position we want to be at the end of the year.”

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About Stuart Bathgate 1430 Articles
Stuart has been the rugby correspondent for both The Scotsman and The Herald, and was also The Scotsman’s chief sports writer for 14 years from 2000.