STUART McINALLY had only been a hooker for two years, and had only been playing top tier pro rugby in that position for six months, when he was named in the Scotland squad for the 2015 World Cup. It was a dream come true for the former No 8 who had decided to enrol in the front-row union in an effort to jump-start his international career.
It hadn’t been a seamless transition, and looking back McInally can see that he still hadn’t properly mastered some of the more technical aspects of the position – but he was boosted by the faith head coach Vern Cotter had shown in him and determined to make the most of the opportunity, even if he knew he was travelling as third choice behind Ross Ford and Fraser Brown.
Alas, the fickle hand of fate had other ideas, and a neck injury ruled him out of the tournament at the last minute. It was a crushing blow at the time, but McInally is now able to be philosophical about the set-back.
“I was gutted,” he recalls. “When James Robson [the team doctor] phoned me and told me the scan results weren’t good and I’d be out for four months – that was actually between the leaving dinner and departing – it was really tough.
“I was going through all the emotions in the month before, training so hard and then getting my first cap against Italy, then named in the squad, and after all that being told I was out for four months, it was pretty upsetting.
“But I feel I am a totally different player now as well. Looking back, I’d only got two caps going into that World Cup if I’d gone, and now I’ve played a lot more. I feel way more comfortable in the No 2 role and I’m better placed to play in a World Cup than I would have been four years ago.”
The extent to which McInally has developed as a player during the last four years is demonstrated in the fact that he is now not only first choice hooker with 27 caps to his name, but is also the current captain of the side – taking over from Greig Laidlaw for the final two games of last season’s Six Nations and holding on to the role for this weekend’s World Cup warm-up match against France in Nice despite the fact that John Barclay has returned after a year out with an Achilles injury.
“Me and John get on very well,” McInally straight bats when asked if it is tricky having a former captain working under him. “It’s great having him on the pitch because when I got my first real involvement with Scotland, he was the captain. It’s now great to be in that leadership group with him, you learn so much.
“He speaks so well on defence. Throughout training he just steps up and talks on that, so I don’t have to worry about speaking on everything. Everyone’s just happy to lead and contribute. It’s not a big deal.
“You’ve got Hoggy [Stuart Hogg] there as well and Gilco [Grant Gilchrist], so it’ll be an easy job for me being captain.”
It is not a foregone conclusion that McInally will be named captain of the World Cup squad when it is announced on 3rd September, but the smart money is surely on the Edinburgh man.
Certainly, assistant coach Danny Wilson did nothing to dispel the theory when he was asked about the 27-year-old’s qualities.
“I think he’s extremely rounded as a professional and as a player,” said the coach. “I’ve been really impressed with him since before I worked with him. As an opposition coach I could see the quality of the player, and since coming into the environment I have seen it in spades.
“And not just the player – the leader and the person he is as well – he’s very important to the environment. He’s very level-headed, great leadership skills and we all see that week-in and week-out he always gives 110 percent, whether that is with Edinburgh or Scotland.
“He’s improved aspects of his game. To think he came from back-row to hooker, and now the level he throws and scrummages. The depth we are starting to create at hooker – him and Fraser Brown have battled it out for a long time, and now the two younger lads at Glasgow [George Turner and Grant Stewart] coming through – is great for us.”
For his part, McInally is typically understated when asked for his thoughts on the possibility of leading the team to Japan.
“I’ve actually not thought about it, and I am being honest when I say that,” he insists. “I’m really just focusing on these warm-up games. The captaincy is something I’m happy doing, if I do get the opportunity … wow … it’d be a great honour, and a really proud moment. But there are so many other great leaders on the squad. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
“I get a lot support from the coaches and it’s a confidence boost to be picked as captain, no doubt. I’m very proud to do that, even with these warm-up games it’s still a Test match for Scotland. A chance to captain my country is always a massive honour for me.”
- Scotland will play the first of four warm-up matches ahead of the World Cup against France at the Allianz Riviera Stadium in Nice, France, today [Saturday]. Kick-off is 8pm BST or 9pm local time. The match is live on Premier Sports.