Edinburgh star McInally hoping his gamble pays off

Stuart McInally
Stuart McInally
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STUART McINALLY celebrates a 24th birthday today hoping he is on the eve of a brave new rugby era.

Good enough to have sat once on the bench for Scotland without getting the cap call, McInally – known as “Rambo” – made the decision just over a year ago to switch from back row to hooker.

Now, after spells learning his craft at Premiership level in Scotland followed by an extended loan with English Championship side Bristol, he believes the time is right to make a major push back to his previous level – and beyond.

“If everything works out I’ll be back,” says McInally, adding: “I’d like to think I’d have gone on to play for Scotland in the back row but would I have gone on to be one of the best in the world? Probably not.

“I’ve got the chance to maybe be one of the best hookers in the world, a chance to offer something a bit different.”

The global goal is one McInally does shy away from.

Referring to how he had to master the primary chore of throwing to the line-out, he said: “The first thing I did was get a bag of balls and hammer them against a tree in Inverleith Park for an hour a day, every day, for three months.

“There is only so much satisfaction to be gained from throwing a ball at a tree. It’s mind numbing. But if you want to be the best in the world at something it’s going to be boring at times.

“There could be a situation where five minutes to go in a game we are on our own line and I just have to find the jumper with a throw. That’s why I have had to spend so much time on this aspect.”

Initially, McInally was sceptical about the switch he hopes will start to bear fruit in Edinburgh colours when the pre-season programme opens against Leicester at Melrose a fortnight today.

“The decision was 100 per cent mine but when the coaches came to me with the idea it was not something I had thought about. Initially I was not keen at all. “The first thing Scott Johnson (now director of rugby) said to me is you could make it as an international back row but you could be an even better hooker. I could have picked up caps as a back row but the way it was put to me suggested there could be World Cups etc. That really excited me.

“What excites me, too, is that it was not because I was too short or too slow to play back row. I was told ‘you can play back row but you go on and be a better hooker’ (so) it was a positive move.

“I didn’t want to be 28 or 29 and think ‘what if …’

“Rather I’d prefer to look back and say ‘ah well, I went for it and it didn’t work out’

“I spoke to numerous people, most notably Ross Ford and (ex Scotland captain) Jason White. Ross gave me confidence that it could be done and he thought I could do it in a year having switched after age-grade rugby himself.”

The next step for McInally was to get game time under his belt, but the Scottish domestic scene was to prove problematic.

“It was difficult being at Currie one week (for league matches) and Edinburgh Accies (in the British and Irish Cup).

“On one occasion I started at tight head prop and that wasn’t ideal.

“A big turning point came when I went to Bristol (five top team appearances to add to 58 at Edinburgh).

“There I was treated not like a back row who had changed position but as a new hooker who had just arrived at the club.

“That really forced me to work under pressure and hopefully has improved me so that I am ready to play for Edinburgh.

“My goal is to get in the squad as quickly as possible.

“It is a big ask to get into the starting line-up ahead of Ross Ford and I have to be realistic that the bench will be a starting point.

“From there I hope to get a run and show what I have learned at Bristol.”

Does McInally sometimes wonder how things would have turned out had he got the nod to enter the fray against the Springboks?

“It was one of the proudest days of my life because I’d worked so hard to put myself in that window,” he said. “It gave me a real vision of where I wanted to get to.

“But if I had got on I would probably have said I am a Scotland back row and stayed put.

“I’m not a great believer in things being ‘meant to be’ and in making the change I know what I want to do after rugby, anyway: I want to be a pilot.

“So, with rugby it is a chance to make my family proud by playing for Scotland and maybe the Lions.”

This would-be pilot – he has already accrued multiple flying miles – truly epitomises the phrase “shoot for the moon and you may just hit the stars!”