STUART McINALLY is generally a relaxed, urbane character away from the rugby pitch, but that on-field fire which has driven his emergence from the shadows to become one of the most highly rated hookers in world rugby during the last 18-months was evident on Saturday night when it was put to him that Edinburgh’s scrum dominance in their back-to-back 1872 Cup successes over Glasgow Warriors might not have been entirely legitimate.
A few moments earlier, Warriors head coach Dave Rennie had complained about Edinburgh’s front-row ‘walking round’ at scrum time.
“I’m not going to grizzle about the refereeing, but we weren’t happy with the way it was refereed last week, and we sent some clips in that confirmed what they are doing is illegal – walking round – and it is supposed to be a pushing contest,” said the Kiwi coach.
“The first scrum tonight, they were rewarded [when Warriors loosehead Oli Kebble was penalised and Jaco van der Walt opened the scoring for the visitors], so they are going to keep doing it,” he added. “It is frustrating from our point of view, but at the end of the day you’ve got to deal with what the referee is doing out there.”
1872 Cup coverage –
McInally, who scored Edinburgh’s only try on Saturday, visibly bristled when Rennie’s comments were put to him.
“We practise scrumming square, we practise pushing hard, we do a lot of scrum training,” he said. “We’ve never once spoken about stepping around a scrum … ever.
“We talk about showing good pictures, we talk about pushing straight and I’m not going to comment on his comments, but we scrummage positively and that’s two games now that the refs have given us the reward for working hard, and we feel we get what we deserve.
“I’ve enjoyed playing a lot and there’s been good continuity which has always helped, especially up front,” he added. “It’s been good scrummaging with Pierre [Schoeman] and WP [Nel]. They’re two really big men, so I felt that as the game went on today we got the reward for what we were trying to do. We were trying to scrum positively all day and I’m pleased we got the reward for working hard and we got a bit ascendancy as the game went on.”
In fairness, Rennie is not the sort of coach who goes out of his way to play games in the press. He is, generally, pretty honest and fair. However, in this instance, it could be that the former centre knows he has got a big problem and is desperate to divert focus.
Glasgow’s first choice tighthead, Zander Fagerson, has been out since mid-September with an ankle injury and is in a race against time to be fit to take any part in the Six Nations. That leaves Rennie with four options to anchor the scrum in Tongan Siua Halanukonuka and uncapped Scotsman D’Arcy Rae (who shared that responsibility without much joy in the two Edinburgh matches), youngster Adam Nicol (who remains largely untested at this level) or 37-year-old Petrus du Plessis (who joined the club in early October as emergency cover until the end of the season and has managed five appearances off the bench for a combined total of 90 minutes so far).
Meanwhile, at hooker, Fraser Brown and George Turner are also missing for at least the next month, so he is relying on Grant Stewart (who signed his first full-time contract with the club just before Christmas), Kevin Bryce (whose last two seasons have been blighted by injury and an aborted an attempt to convert into a tight-head prop) and Robbie Smith (a 20-year-old academy prospect who plays his club rugby with Ayr in the Tennent’s Premiership and is yet to feature in a pro game).
Steep learning curve
Stewart, in particular, had a tough time on Saturday. With several lineout malfunctions piling even more pressure onto the harassed home side – before he was replaced by Bryce at half-time.
“The lineout was disappointing, but all hookers of all levels have little blips and bad days. We’re not going to hang the kid over that,” said Rennie.
“Like a team, individuals go through troughs as well, and it was a tough night for the young fella. He mucked up a couple of calls in pretty important parts of the field for us, so he’ll learn a bit from that.
“You know, he’s going to have to develop a little bit of resilience around that and he’ll bounce back. He’s going to be in the mix next week, and he’s going to be in the mix the week after, probably, with the boys being out.”
Rennie initially indicated that he had no plans to bring in an experienced stop-gap hooker but seemed to soften his stance after his team’s defeat.
“We haven’t closed the door on that,” he conceded. “We’ve been pretty happy with how Grant has gone in the last two or three weeks. We’ll make an assessment. We’re one ding [injury] away from needing someone so we’ll see how we go.
“We know what we need to do,” he added. “Some of it might be solved by selection. From a set-piece point of view, we still believe we have a good scrum. We’d like consistency around how that is officiated and think that will make a difference.”
Back to his usual magnanimous self, McInally backed Stewart to bounce back from Saturday’s disappointment.
“Grant’s an excellent player,” he said, of the man who understudied him during last summer’s Scotland tour of the Americas. “He’s a really, really good ball-carrier and a really good defender. I carried once into him and I went back about five metres. And he’ll get better from playing these games. He’s only young, he’s playing an attritional position and we also put a lot of focus on our set piece and I feel he’s only going to get better. He’s definitely one to watch.”