STUART McINALLY spent the 2015 World Cup lying on his sofa, nursing a sore neck and feeling sorry for himself. After making the switch from back-row to hooker two years earlier, he had found his footing in the new position just in time to force his way into Vern Cotter’s squad for England 2015, but it wasn’t to be.
That injury picked up just before the tournament kicked off was a bitter pill to swallow at the time but proved to be a pivotal moment in the career of a player who came back both physically and mentally stronger, ready to establish himself as one of the best No 2s in World Rugby.
However, his destiny was not set in stone at that point. He needed a little extra push in the right direction along the way, and that arrived in the shape of Richard Cockerill, when the hard-bitten former England hooker took over as head coach at Edinburgh in the summer of 2017, transforming McInally’s club from a listless ragbag of underperformers into a cohesive unit of motivated men.
“People keep bringing it up about the last World Cup and obviously it was disappointing, but this time around I feel like a different player,” said McInally, after his resurrected career reached another significant milestone on Tuesday when he was named as captain of the Scotland squad for this year’s World Cup in Japan, which kicks off against Ireland in just over two weeks’ time.
“I was very much just coming towards what felt like the end of my transition from back-row to a front-row in 2015 – had two caps and was feeling good – but I was still really inexperienced as a hooker and I think that if I’d gone to that World Cup I wouldn’t have been as comfortable as I am now standing on the side-line throwing the ball in or scrummaging.
“Experience has helped me loads and this time around I feel more relaxed and, personally, I’m in a good place to go there and play some good rugby.
“The journey has been tough,” he continued. “I remember when I found out I was missing the 2015 World Cup, I said to myself that I was going to use this to come back stronger.
“I was determined to come back with a stronger neck than I’d ever had before because I think I took that for granted how strong your neck needs to be to play in the front-row in international rugby. So, I did loads of stuff – still do loads of stuff – to keep on top of that.
“After missing the 2015 tournament, I played all of the 2016 Six Nations because Fraser Brown was injured so it was between myself and Ross Ford. But I didn’t play at all the following year [2016-17] because I was struggling to even get in the Edinburgh team, so that was a really tough year for me, feeling like I was ready to kick on but I couldn’t get a game at Edinburgh because I wasn’t quite there yet.
“Then, when Richard came into Edinburgh and Fordy had an injury, he just believed in me and gave me a good run of games. Up to that point I hadn’t started more than one game in a row without having to go back to the bench. So, he just gave me loads of game time, and that’s when I started managing to play well for Scotland as well.
“I really look at that as the start of my Scotland career. I think it was Gregor Townsend’s first year [as Scotland coach] and we played the Autumn Tests against Samoa, New Zealand and Australia, and I had a really positive start to my Scotland career.”
Leading from the front
There was no shortage of strong candidates for the captaincy in the World Cup squad Townsend named on Tuesday – with Greig Laidlaw and John Barclay having filled the role with distinction in recent seasons, plus Grant Gilchrist and Ryan Wilson bringing significant leadership experience – but McInally ticked all the boxes in terms of form, standing amongst the players, understanding of the game and being able to command a starting berth in the big matches.
“Gregor told me last week,” revealed McInally. “He just sat me down and asked me to captain the Georgia game and also if I wanted to captain the World Cup squad. I just smiled straight away. I was desperate to do it.
“Having so many leaders does make me more relaxed. That was a really good chance last weekend to work with both John and Greig on the pitch and be the captain. They work so well and take such a workload off me. John speaks so well about defence and Greig speaks so well about everything because of his experience. Between them they have almost 150 caps, so I’d be silly not to tap into that experience.
“I’ve had the experience of captaining my country four or five times now, so I know exactly how I’ll do it. I’m not the kind of captain who is going to speak loads and I’ve said this to Gregor, but what I will do is work exceptionally hard, I’ll train hard, and I’ll work to make sure that everyone works hard to get the best out of us on the pitch.
“So, for me, that looks like asking Greig to speak and do a lot of stuff, and asking John to help. I’m certainly going to lean on the guys around me, why wouldn’t I? They’ve got way more experience than me and have such valuable strengths that can help us.
“This is certainly the most leaders I’ve been involved with, whether with Scotland or Edinburgh. That can only be a good thing. You need the team to function whether I’m playing or not. You have to have leaders throughout the park, and I think that’s a massive strength for us.”