Scotland summer tour 2018: Stuart McInally ready to lead from the front, as Richie Gray drops out of squad

Richard Cockerill was the catalyst to hooker's arrival on centre stage

Stuart McInally Scotland
Stuart McInally has had a huge season for club and country, but is ready to go again as he leads Scotland on tour to the Americas during the next month ***Image: David Gibson/Fotosport***

AN excellent all-round season for Stuart McInally gas reached its zenith with the hooker being entrusted with captaincy of the Scotland squad on tour to Canada, the USA and Argentina during the next month.

It is a huge turnaround from this time last year when the hooker was left out of Gregor Townsend’s first ever Scotland squad which toured Singapore, Australia and Fiji, partially because of a back complaint but mainly because of a chronic lack of form which had resulted in him managing just six starts all season in a struggling Edinburgh team.

The 27-year-old has bounced back in sensational style this term to make the dark-blue number two jersey his own, registering a series of performances which prompted his club coach, Richard Cockerill, to recently ask: ‘In world rugby, who is playing better than Stuart at hooker?’ Cockerill then answered his own question: ‘I can’t think of many who are better than he is.’

Mark Bennett replaces injured Alex Dunbar on Scotland tour

Details of Agenda 3 will be issued after deadline for AGM motions

Premiership quartet finally released for Scotland Under-20s squad

Clearly, that time off last summer was the best thing that could have happened to a player who has always looked capable of being a star performer for Scotland but had at that stage struggled to really scale the full height of his potential.

The Cockerill effect

With the arrival of Cockerill invigorating the whole Edinburgh squad, McInally has finally found his groove at hooker, and throughout this season’s November Tests and Six Nations he consistently posted the sort of tackling and handling stats which wouldn’t have looked out of place in the days before 2013 when he played in the back-row.

“I never thought that my chance had gone, I just knew that I had to reset a bit,” reflected McInally, when asked how he had felt when missing out on last summer’s tour. “The way that year had gone, I had to just start again and that’s what I did. I enjoyed pre-season with Edinburgh and just forgot about Scotland.

“As a result of putting Edinburgh before everything else, I started playing better and the Scotland thing came back. The less you think about it the quicker it comes back around.

“I think it did help having a new coach. It was just totally fresh. It was like joining a new club, in a way. The way he [Cockerill] was running it was different to anything we had done before. We had a new strength and conditioning coach so all the fitness stuff we were doing for pre-season was new, and I think that really helped us to start again – get our heads down and work hard to impress a new coach.

McInally admits that he and his Edinburgh team-mates had the same preconception of Cockerill as the outside world before the Englishman’s arrival, as a coach focussed on harnessing forward power and aggression to achieve results, but it didn’t take long to realise that there was more to the man than just the bulldog persona he cultivated as a player in Leicester’s formidable front-row of the 1990s and early 2000s.

“That’s all we really had to go on and I was really quite surprised at how smart he was in terms of the game-plan and how open he was to playing a brand of rugby that is really enjoyable.

“I know everyone at Edinburgh has really enjoyed what he’s brought. It was exactly what we needed – that level of discipline which we had, without really knowing it, drifted away from the last couple of seasons. Suddenly you get that into line and it allows you to focus on other parts of your game like throwing the ball around a bit more.”

No rest for the wicked

So, while the likes of John Barclay (now injured), Ryan Wilson, Jonny Gray, Greig Laidlaw, Finn Russell and Tommy Seymour have been given the summer off to rest and re-energise ahead of the long run-in to next summer’s World Cup, McInally has not only been asked to go again by Townsend, but has also been handed the extra responsibility of leadership.

“Gregor phoned me on the morning after the Munster game [Edinburgh’s final match of the season] and asked what my thoughts were on the captaincy and I was pretty excited,” he said. “When I saw his name pop up [on the phone] and I was a bit confused, but he made it clear straight away what he was calling for, so it was nice to hear his thoughts on why he wanted to choose me.

“He asked to meet, so we had a coffee and a chat about how I approached captaincy at Edinburgh, where I had been captain for the last few games. He just wanted my take on things to see if that married up with what he was thinking. He seemed to be fairly happy. And that was it. We spoke a bit about the tour and he gave me a bit of a head’s up on the schedule, who was going and stuff like that.”

With so many senior players missing – was the latest drop-out yesterday with a hip injury –  it is a fairly inexperienced squad which set off for Vancouver yesterday, but McInally dismisses the suggestion that this will increase his workload.

Error, group does not exist! Check your syntax! (ID: 3)

“Although there are some young boys we are all adults. They can be trusted to look after themselves and make good decisions. For me as captain it will just be on the pitch. I’ll do a bit off the pitch if I feel the need to. There are a lot of other leaders to help with that. We don’t need to babysit anyone, they are old enough and big enough to make good decisions,” he said.

“There are still a lot of boys here who have a lot of experience. I’m sure we’ll do everything we can to make the new guys feel settled. They are here for a reason, [they are] maybe touring for the first time but they need to take confidence from being picked and put their best game out.”

“I just try and train hard and if that helps some boys then great. There’s no real secret formula to it. This last year I’ve just been trying to keep my head down, almost do less of the leading stuff. But it’s funny how when you try to lead less, you end up doing it just by the way you’re playing. You almost do it without realising, which is possibly the best way. When you start overthinking it I don’t think it’s that effective.”

Asked if there was any particular captain he has played under in the past who he would like to emulate, McInally wasted no time in identifying the man he is deputising for on this tour.

“John [Barclay] obviously speaks very well when he needs to, but people remember him as a good captain from how well he plays, and how he puts his body on the line every time he plays, how hard he works off the ball and the stuff he does up front. It’s a good way to lead as a forward.”

Sorting out the line-out

The one area where McInally has struggled this year is at line-out time, with several key throws going awry as he has struggled to balance the desire to maintain tempo (by getting the ball back into play as quickly as possible) with the need for accuracy.

The arrival of Carl Hogg as an assistant coach in the Scotland camp for this tour, essentially auditioning to replace Dan McFarland on a permanent basis when he eventually heads off to Ulster, has brought some real focus to getting the line-out issue sorted.

“I’ve had chats at length with Hoggy and it has been great. He is a line-out guru. He loves all the detail to do with it, so he has just brought in his system and the boys are really enjoying it. You can just tell he is so passionate about that side of the game,” explained McInally.

“There were a few mess-ups in the line-out during the Six Nations so there is definitely work to be done. It’s about learning how to keep doing it quickly and trying to find ways that work – we’ve got a few ways that do work, so it is about doing that and building on it.”

  • Richie Gray has been ruled out of the tour with a hip injury. He will not be replaced in the touring party which means Grant Gilchrist, Tim Swinson, Ben Toolis and uncapped Lewis Carmichael will compete for second-row slots.

Summer tour: Adam Hastings has chance to claim the keys to No 10


About David Barnes 3381 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including he Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.