AFTER a summer of intense training as part of Scotland’s World Cup training squad, Stuart McInally would have been easily forgiven for taking his foot off the gas and enjoying a few well-earned weeks off after being informed last month that he had not made the final cut for the tournament.
After all, the 33-year-old let it be known back in April that his boots are being hung up after his involvement in this World Cup window, so that he can focus on his next career step as a commercial airline pilot.
But instead of taking the easy option, McInally continued training hard, linking up with his old club mates at Edinburgh during their pre-season programme and doing extras by himself, in the hope that a late call-up may come his way – with that perseverance being rewarded earlier this week, although he expresses sympathy for Dave Cherry who he has replaced in the squad after a freak accident on Monday night.
“I saw Dave before he flew home on Thursday and he seems okay which is the most important thing,” said McInally. “I was so disappointed for him because he had worked so hard in the build-up, and I feel like we all pushed each other in that pre-season.
“From chatting to Gregor, the selection with the hookers was close and Dave thoroughly deserved his spot. I know he’s just devastated with what’s happened. It is just unfortunate. I’m just sad it has ended that way for him and as a squad, it has definitely given us extra motivation.
“I guess I knew this could always happen,” he added. “If I hadn’t stayed fit and been bitter about missing selection and then they needed me, I couldn’t have forgiven myself if they didn’t pick me for being unfit or if I came over here and let the team down.
“That was all the motivation I needed to stay in shape, and I’m pleased I did because the first thing I rocked into on Thursday was a fitness test! I had to make sure I showed up well in that.”
McInally initially flew out to the south of France late last week to provide cover – but not officially join the squad – when Ewan Ashman suffered a concussion in training, before flying home on Monday night when there were no further injuries during Scotland’s tournament opener against Marseilles.
However, no sooner had he left the camp than Cherry slipped on a stair at the team hotel and suffered a concussion of his own, meaning he would be unable to play rugby for at least the next 12 days, and perhaps longer depending on how he progresses through his return to play protocols.
With Scotland’s next pool match against Tonga only 13 days away, the decision was made to officially call McInally into the squad and send Cherry home.
“After the two hookers – George Turner and Cherry – got through the game fine on Sunday, Gregor said there was a flight home on Monday night if I wanted to get on it, so I decided to go home and see my family, because I still wasn’t officially part of the squad so there was no hope of me training or anything.
“Then I got the call on Wednesday to say I was coming back out. I got a day with my boy on Tuesday and then we kept him off nursery on Wednesday before I flew back that night.
“Fortunately, I hadn’t unpacked. I’m slow at that sort of stuff and my wife always gets on at me, but for once it paid off because I didn’t have to pack twice!”
If – as is almost certain – McInally does make it into the match-day squad for any of Scotland’s remaining matches at this tournament, it will bring up his half century of caps, which would be a nice moment, but he stresses that his biggest motivation during his time in France is to wipe away some of the painful memories of the 2019 World Cup, when he was captain of the squad but ended up being dropped from the starting XV as the team tumbled out of the tournament at the end of the pool stage.
“I spoke years ago about my goals, and I said it would be cool to get 50 caps. I had come to terms with the fact I wasn’t going to get 50 and I was determined that wasn’t going to define whether I’d had a successful career. Even if I’d retired on 47 before the summer warm-up schedule, I would have still been really proud, knowing that 47 is a lot of caps especially with a positional change.
“So, everyone is talking about that  but until you are named in a 23 there’s so much that can go wrong, so I’m just focused on trying to put my best foot forward for the team. I’d be keen to talk more about if I get it. I appreciate it’s a good story but I’m trying not to think about it.
“My mindset is different this time compared to the last World Cup because I know I am finishing,” he added. “This is literally my last time in an environment, so I’m just trying to soak it all in. My focus is on enjoying it and I’m confident that will get the best out of me as well.
“The pressure is probably the same as in 2019 because I want to play well, and I want the team to play well, and I want to achieve what we know we can achieve here. But, certainly, coming into this group as I have now, it is a different kind environment, and I can definitely say I am going to enjoy this more.”
McInally also paid tribute to his wife, Natalie, who he has left at home with son Ollie. “She’s been brilliant, ever since I was named in the initial 41 with the chance of being away for a long time,” he said. “She knows it’s the last one so she can get right behind it. She felt all the disappointment I felt when I initially missed out, and now I’ve come out she’s excited. Hopefully she will come out and watch a game if I’m playing.”
Beyond that, he plans to start the process of gaining his commercial pilot qualification in January, and has decided that he would like to stay involved in rugby in some way, although he has not worked out what that might look like yet.
“As a private pilot, I need to revalidate my license so I had done a few flights up in Perth with an instructor just to get the sharpness back, and I was due to go up with an examiner this week, to revalidate my license so I could go and hire a plane if I wanted to – but that’s on hold just now.
“Initially, I said I’d be done with rugby [after retiring] and all I want to do is my flying, but that was naive. Rugby has been such a big part of my life for 13 years as a professional, Watsonians before that and at school before that so I would like to find a way to stay involved, but I’m not really sure how I work that around my flying schedule.”
One thing is for sure, according to McInally, and that is that we won’t seem him back as a player – even if Scotland somehow upset he odds by going all the way in this tournament.
“I’ll happily take the medal and walk out on top,” he laughs. “I’m definitely retiring but I’m not thinking about that right now. I can’t make that clear enough. I’m starting that [his commercial pilot qualification] in January, and until then all I am thinking about is being here and squeezing every drop out of this incredible opportunity.”