Rugby: Stuart McInally eager for cap

Stuart McInally, above, can't wait to face Al Strokosch when Edinburgh meet Perpignan in the Heineken Cup
Stuart McInally, above, can't wait to face Al Strokosch when Edinburgh meet Perpignan in the Heineken Cup
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Sunday, October 20 is a date that is already likely to be inked into the diary of Edinburgh Rugby flanker Stuart McInally as a chance to transform disappointment into cap destiny.

That is when the 22-year-old is liable to go head-to-head with the player he feels sets the standards at blindside flanker, Al Strokosch, with Edinburgh scheduled to travel to Perpignan for a Heineken European Cup group tie.

McInally knows the stakes will be high, both from an 
individual and team perspective, because if he is to finally reach the promised land of a first Scotland cap then he must first oust a Capital predecessor who took his performances to new heights on the summer tour of South Africa.

True, Strokosch finished that tour by scoring the winning try against Italy in the Castle Cup from the unfamiliar position of open-side flanker, but that was a case of needs-must for the injury-hit Scots.

Normal service is expected to be restored by the Autumn internationals, which will see McInally attempt to go one better than last year when he was an unused substitute covering for the absent Strokosch, who immediately returned fit the following week with the chance never arising again.

“Looking back on the match against South Africa at Murrayfield, when I got my only opportunity so far to bench for Scotland, provokes mixed emotions,” says McInally, adding: “It was incredible to walk into the changing room and see my name embroidered on a Scotland jersey – I almost started crying because I was so proud to be there.

“I actually got told to go down to the side of the pitch after 60 minutes of the game and I was buzzing. I thought ‘here we go, this is what I have wanted for so long’.”

But the call to arms from then head coach Andy Robinson never arrived and McInally was left to reflect, saying: “Getting so close was what made the come-down so severe, but at the same time it was a good day. I have a recording of the match and my mum got the 
jersey afterwards.

“I knew she’d appreciate it and hopefully if I get another chance in future the jersey will mean even more to me.

“What drives me on is the knowledge that Stroker (Strokosch) and Kelly Brown are peaking with boys aged around 30.

“I’ve never seen Stroker play so well, but there could be a chance to measure myself against him soon and I’m still only 22.

“He’s the player I have looked up to over the past couple of years ever since Andy Robinson made me aware of just how good he is. I knew he was a 
machine who could tackle but the work he does at breakdowns has turned him into a really complete player.

“I was at school when he was playing for Edinburgh and I’ve only ever trained with him as opposed to lining up in opposition. So, yes, it could be exciting if we face each other in the Heineken Cup.”

Few players gave more to the Edinburgh cause last season than McInally, nicknamed Rambo, who started 26 matches and missed only an 1872 Cup tie with Glasgow and a clash with Treviso. While Scotland squad regulars were required to rest after every four matches he helped keep the Capital show on the road and perhaps that contributed to missing out on the summer tour,

Typically, McInally prefers to focus on the future, saying: “I had a good season in terms of being involved and sat down with (Scotland coach) Scott Johnson who explained the reasons for not making the Six 
Nations squad.

“I was happy with what I did so far as taking on board advice was concerned, but because the Six Nations went so well, I couldn’t see the squad being changed for the tour, especially with Glasgow reaching the league play-offs. But Scotland squads are picked three times a year now and it is in my own hands. The stuff I’ve needed to work on – power in defence, trying to make sure of all my tackles and making them a bit more dominant – I’ll bring to the 
table. I’m the leanest and 
heaviest I have ever been and one positive effect of not yet having the new coach in place is that a lot of players are emerging as leaders and you can’t have too many of them.

“From an outsider’s point of view, you might think it would be awkward, but the reality is the situation has brought a lot of players closer together.

“It really could be the making of us . . .

“Whoever comes in I hope they find a place for (interim coach) Stevie Scott because it is easy to see the passion he has as a former Edinburgh and 
Scotland player.

“Stevie has set up a team room with pictures of past players and a captain’s board going back years. There’s a real club feeling around and training has been more game specific than I’ve known.”

The message from McInally, who was speaking during volunteer week which included a game of touch against Big Issue sellers, is that the darkest hour could be just before dawn. Both for himself and the Edinburgh team.