STUART McINALLY had waited a long time for his big chance and when it arrived he was ready to grasp it with both hands. Even discounting the two tries he scored on either side of the half-time break, the Edinburgh hooker was one of very few outstanding Scottish performers at Murrayfield yesterday, when the national team made hard work of securing a 44-38 victory over Samoa.
He was at the forefront of almost everything positive the Scottish pack achieved, and provided an exhibition of deadly-accurate line-out throwing (and did so at high tempo).
This was his tenth Scotland cap, and his fourth start – but those previous appearances as part of the run-on XV had been in a World Cup warm-up match against Italy in August 2015 (he missed the tournament due to a neck injury) and twice on tour against Japan in June 2016 (he did not feature for the national team again until yesterday).
This, on the surface, was similar to those previous matches in that it was a friendly against opposition Scotland should expect to defeat – but the context was very different. For three years now, the battle for the Scotland number two jersey has ostensibly been between Fraser Brown and record cap holder Ross Ford with McInally picking up the scraps – but with both those players ruled out of this month’s Test series through injury, an opportunity has arisen for the long-standing gooseberry to reconfigure the established pecking order.
Given the calibre of the opposition headed towards Murrayfield during the next fortnight (New Zealand and Australia), McInally knows that he will never have a better chance to become the main man than this Autumn. Some big performances in those matches will make it very hard to budge him from the team.
So, it was vital that he laid down a marker here in order to keep understudy George Turner waiting in the wings – although McInally insisted that he does not concern himself with such peripheral considerations.
“I wasn’t really thinking about that at all. The last couple of years I’ve just tried to work hard and if I get an opportunity try to make the most of it,” he said.
“I don’t like putting too much pressure on myself. I did that a lot when I was younger, trying to play so well every week for Edinburgh to try to get to play for Scotland and it didn’t do me any favours, so now I’m just trying to live in the moment a bit more and actually enjoy playing for Scotland, and it went well today.”
While it went well for McInally, the game as a whole was not the most convincing declaration of intent ahead of New Zealand next week. It produced a record number of points scored in a Test match at Murrayfield, but that had much more to do with the fragility of the defences than the potency of the attacks.
“When we were 32-10 up, there was a bit of breathing space, but it is a concern how quickly they were responding to our tries. So, in a way, we’re disappointed – but it’s also maybe better than the game going perfectly because it means we won’t get ahead of ourselves for next week. We’ve got a lot to work on; we’ll look at our defence and pick it apart, especially our defence in our own 22 where they seemed to score very easily.”
“We targeted this game to have a lot of ball in play so it was frustrating when we didn’t keep a hold of it [like we wanted to],” he continued. “Whenever we had ball it felt like we were either scoring or getting a penalty but when Samoa had it it was the same story.”
“The refs are tightening up on the offside now and we got pinged [penalised] for that a few times, so that’s something we need to fix for next week.
“Samoa are a really good team and have good individuals, especially in the back line, who caused us problems.”
The ability of Samoa in open play has, of course, never been in doubt. at is part of their DNA. A bigger concern for Scotland should be the trouble they had dealing with their opponents’ less feted driving play.
“As forwards our pick-and-go defence wasn’t great today,” acknowledged McInally. “They seemed to be scoring too easily round the fringes so that is an area we need to tighten up. We were narrowing and narrowing because of that and they got a try when they went wide with the ten.
“We need to look at ways to slow the ball down too because they got a lot of quick ball. These are things we need to look for solutions to next week.’
McInally was part of an all-Edinburgh front-row which started the game, with the experienced WP Nel at tight-head and debutant Darryl Marfo at loose-head. The man in the middle professed himself pretty satisfied with how that unit operated.
“I felt we did well but didn’t get the benefit of the good work we were doing in the scrums. In the first one we were going forward and I heard the whistle and looked up thinking ‘great start’ and he’s pinged us, so I was frustrated that we didn’t get a better foothold in the scrum,” he explained.
“But we had two or three on their line where they kept taking it down and that allowed us to go to the corner and score.
“Darryl played really well on his first cap and I’m pleased we managed to get a win for him. I remember my first cap and all those players in that dressing room will remember theirs – it’s one cap you really remember.
“And I’m so pleased for George [Turner] coming on. He’s a player who has worked so hard for a number of years and been incredibly frustrated, and now he’s playing great rugby every week at Glasgow and thoroughly deserves his first cap out there.”
It is a noble sentiment from McInally, but we can be absolutely certain that this warmth he feels towards his understudy does not extend towards switching places for the New Zealand next week.
“I will do my homework like everybody else. I’ll do a lot of work on the opposite front-row and I’ll spend a lot of time watching scrums. I like to cover all bases. It keeps me calm going into games knowing that I’ve done everything so I’ll certainly have a god look at them,” he said.
“They [New Zealand] are a quality team who like a high ball-in-play time as well. They’ve got a lot of really good individuals and work incredibly well as a team. They have a really good scrum, which I think is underrated, and that’s something I’m really looking forward to – challenging myself against the best team in the world. If I get selected for that it will be right up there as one of the highest moments, so I’ll enjoy some downtime tonight but then crack open the laptop over the next couple of days.”