WITH the PRO14 due to resume next month and the Challenge Cup in September, Stuart McInally is likely to have played a fair amount of rugby for Edinburgh by the time Georgia visit Murrayfield in October. However, the hooker believes the fixture will be a very welcome one, coming as it will a week before the rescheduled Six Nations game against Wales, although he warned that it should not be seen as a mere warm-up.
McInally was the captain when Scotland won 44-10 in Tbilisi last year as part of the build-up to the World Cup, then was rested a week later when Gregor Townsend’s team won the return match 36-9. Yet despite the apparent comfort of both results, he does not expect to have it easy this time round.
“That’s going to be an exciting game,” the hooker said of the Georgia fixture, which has yet to be officially ratified by the Six Nations as part of an expanded autumn international series. “I wouldn’t describe it as a warm-up game, because I think that would be doing Georgia a bit of a discredit. I think they’re an excellent team – I played against them quite recently. It will be good to not have Wales as our first game, because that is such an important game for us.”
According to the draft schedule for the autumn window, a rest weekend will follow the Wales match before Scotland go into their Eight Nations pools games against Italy, France and Japan. Fiji will be the newcomers in the other pool, which will also include England, Ireland and Wales. With a play-off match to follow for each team, the autumn calendar will look refreshingly different according to McInally.
“I think it looks really exciting,” he continued. “We often get the chance to play teams from around the globe around autumn time, so it’s good to welcome Japan and Fiji. It’s just something different, and different is often quite exciting. It’s going to be busy, there will be a lot of games in a short space of time, I’m sure it will be good to be involved in that.
“I’ve always really enjoyed playing in the Autumn Tests and the chance to play teams like New Zealand, Australia, teams you normally never get the chance to play unless you’re lucky enough to tour there. But at the same time, if there’s a competitive side to a tournament, that’s also really exciting.”
In recent seasons some members of the Scotland squad have been subject to a protocol which sees them rested after playing four consecutive games, whether for country or pro team. That could be altered in the coming months given the crowded calendar from late August onwards, and although McInally is well aware of the importance of player welfare, he suggested that the aftermath of the long lockdown lay-off could be the right time for him and his colleagues to take on a more onerous schedule.
“I know it’s a big topic and player welfare is very important, but the coaches of these squads have to manage the players. If there are, say, 26 games in 27 weeks, if that’s what the season’s going to look like, the players can’t play all of them.
“This is where coaches will have to manage people individually. Players will break down if you play them too much. At the same time our jobs rely on the revenue coming in and because of the coronavirus we have had a brilliant three months off, something we haven’t had before.
“Maybe it’s time to knuckle down and we find ourselves playing a bit more this year. I can see both sides. As a player the last thing you want to do is burn yourself out and find yourself constantly playing at 60/70 per cent. You risk injuries more.
“At Edinburgh we do feel the conversations are there to give yourself a bit more ownership. If you feel a bit roughed up you can speak up, and we have a good strength-and-conditioning team that look after you so well. It has happened in the past – a player plays four games in a row then they get a couple of days off during the week. You just have to hope that continues, as it sounds like it will be a real busy year.”
In the more immediate feature, McInally and his Edinburgh team-mates are counting down eagerly to the return of competitive rugby next month when they play Glasgow Warriors twice in the space of seven days. Home advantage has often been a strong factor in the outcome of the inter-city games, but although both matches will be at Murrayfield, the forward believes the lack of a large crowd will have an impact.
“It’s definitely a huge advantage when we get 25,000 in at Christmas. Those are the games when you feed off the noise and the emotion of the crowd. I love playing in those games. It will be different because there won’t be any fans.
“We love playing at Murrayfield, but it’s probably not as big an advantage if it does go ahead behind closed doors. It’s a good pitch and it’s just 15 against 15.”
As they look ahead to the resumption of competitive rugby, Edinburgh are in the pleasant and unfamiliar position of knowing if they win their next four games they will be PRO14 champions. But needless to say, McInally is disinclined to indulge in daydreams about such an eventuality.
“I’ve been in the game long enough to know that if you think too far ahead you shoot yourself in the foot,” he said. “The reality is that if we don’t win two games against Glasgow we won’t have any other games after that so we have to make sure we are in control of that. If we win these games we will be in a great position to move forward.
“I’m excited at the prospect. We have the ability to reach the semi-final and final, but thinking that we could be champions is something that hasn’t crossed our minds.”