France v Scotland: Stuart McInally becomes first among equals

Edinburgh hooker is a guaranteed starter for Scotland which could be crucial in selecting a skipper for World Cup campaign in Japan

Stuart McInally in training with the Scotland squad earlier in the summer. Image: Fotosport/David Gibson

STUART McINALLY is in pole position to captain the Scotland squad at next month’s Rugby World Cup after the Edinburgh forward, who led the side in the last two rounds of this year’s Six Nations, was given the lead role once again in Saturday’s warm-up match against France. The big thing in the 29-year-old’s favour is that he will travel to Japan as undisputed first choice in his position.

John Barclay, who led the side with distinction until an Achilles injury ruled him out of the 2018-19 international season, has been recalled to the side as vice-captain. With back-row arguably the most competitive position in the squad, he faces an almighty battle to be considered an automatic pick, and it seems increasingly likely that head coach Gregor Townsend will allow the 32-year-old to focus on recapturing the form he was showing before his injury without the extra burden of leading the side.

Grieg Laidlaw is the other player in the squad to have regularly captained the Scotland side in recent seasons. He is not involved in Saturday’s match, having been given an extra time out of the firing line after finishing his club season in France three weeks later than his homebased counterparts – but even discounting Townsend’s desire to let all his player fully rest and recover following a tough season, it is questionable whether the 33-year-old is still regarded as number one scrum-half. Ali Price started the last two games of Scotland’s Six Nations.

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Townsend neither denied or confirmed that McInally will be named as captain when the final 31-man squad is announced on 3rd September, but he didn’t need a second invitation to talk up the hooker’s merits as a player and an individual.

“He was captain in our last two Six Nations games, he lifted the Calcutta Cup and we believe there is good continuity there,” said the coach. “We are aware John Barclay was the captain the previous season but with John not playing as many games and no international games for twelve months we feel his position this week as vice-captain will be to focus on his game and also support Stuart, alongside Stuart Hogg in that strong leadership group.

“He [McInally] is someone who leads by example on the field, he trains at a very high level and loves the defensive side of the game which is very important. He can talk with authority on that side of the game.

That game against England [at the end of the Six Nations] was a very tough one to be captain in when you are going behind the posts on a number of occasions in the first half. Sometimes when it has not been working you have to change things through your actions, and his charge down on Owen Farrell and 60-metre run to the try-line really lifted the spirits of the group.

“He is really capable of that. He is learning as a captain and is someone who is open to learning as a captain. He is open to bringing in support and listening to voices elsewhere in the team.

“He has a lot of leaders in that team with two vice captains in John [Barclay] and Stuart [Hogg], plus Grant Gilchrist has captained Scotland in the past. Duncan Taylor is a very good communicator and defensive leader. These are the players he will lean on in the game and to help bring on the half-backs who control our attack.”

Taylor-made solution

Taylor’s return to the Scotland team for the first time in just under 26-months following two injury-ravaged seasons is not a surprise given how he has gone in training this summer, but it is undoubtedly a massive boost. He played what is believed to have been a pretty full-on bounce-match against Edinburgh last week and emerged relatively un-scathed, and Townsend is clearly excited about the influence the Saracens man can have on the squad.

“He is loved by coaches and players at the club he plays for and the country he plays for. He has a really good ability to switch between this laid back, very friendly, very sociable person to a great communicator, an extremely hard worker and intelligent player in attack and defence.

“You don’t often get players who have that all round ability to communicate well in defence, work very hard in attack and defence, and the skill to execute passes and make the right decisions. He is very well respected by our players, our coaches and obviously the coaching staff at Saracens, we are all just hopeful that over the next few years he gets a chance to play a lot more games for club and country.”

It is not only on the park that Taylor provides valuable leadership. Townsend recalled an incident during Scotland’s summer tour of the Americas last summer when the utility-back was with the squad, but it was becoming increasingly apparent that the combination of a head knock and a back injury were going to stop him from playing.

“It was a team run in Houston when we didn’t have the best of sessions, and he wasn’t involved in the 23 but he was watching from the side-line, and he came in and got the boys in a huddle and made a couple of points. He was just really positive about the things that weren’t going that well, it was basically: ‘This is who we are and this is what we’ve got to show’.

“He does it naturally, and we’ve seen it this week, whether it is around defence or attack, if he wants to make a point then he’ll make it and players listen.

“He is equally comfortable at 12 and 13. We used to ask Alex Dunbar the same question and earlier in his career at Glasgow he preferred 12, but latterly he would say both, and Duncan is the same. Nowadays, with a 12 and 13 they do change positions on certain plays – one might be better at distributing and one might be better at running lines. Where they do stay the same is defensively, but Duncan is comfortable in both those positions.”

Scotland team to play France (at the Allianz Rivier on Saturday 17 August – kick-off 8pm BST, 9pm local time): Stuart Hogg VICE CAPTAIN (Exeter Chiefs); Darcy Graham (Edinburgh), Huw Jones (Glasgow Warriors), Duncan Taylor (Saracens), Byron McGuigan (Sale Sharks); Adam Hastings (Glasgow Warriors), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors); Jamie Bhatti (Edinburgh), Stuart McInally CAPTAIN, Simon Berghan (Edinburgh), Ben Toolis (Edinburgh), Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh), John Barclay VICE CAPTAIN (Edinburgh), Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh), Josh Strauss (Blue Bulls).

Substitutes: George Turner (Glasgow Warriors), Gordon Reid (Ayrshire Bulls), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors), Scott Cummings (Glasgow Warriors), Matt Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors), George Horne (Glasgow Warriors), Rory Hutchinson (Northampton Saints), Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh).

France (unconfirmed): Maxime Médard; Damian Penaud, Wesley Fofana, Geoffrey Doumayrou, Alivereti Raka; Camille Lopez, Antoine Dupont; Rabah Slimani, Cammille Chat, Jefferson Poirot CAPTAIN, Sébastien Vahamaahina, Paul Gabrillagues, Ollivon, Gregory Aldritt, Francois Cros.

Substitutes: Dany Priso, Peato Mauvaka, Emerick Setiano, Felix Lambey, Louis Picamoles, Baptiste Serin, Romain Ntamack, Thomas Ramos.

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The Grudge by Tom English
David Barnes
About David Barnes 1874 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.