Hooker Stuart McInally admits he did fear for his career when he suffered the neck injury which wrecked his World Cup dream last summer.
The 25-year-old strained his neck in a weights session as the tournament approached but still took his seat at the table for the send-off dinner before his symptoms worsened and an MRI scan ruled him out just before the squad left for England.
It was another cruel blow for the Edinburgh player, who narrowly missed out on a cap in his previous life as a back-rower when he was an unused sub against South Africa in 2012, then had to miss the first World Cup warm-up Test against Ireland last year when he was hit by a stomach bug on the eve of the game. Thankfully he finally did win his first caps in the back-to-back summer Tests with Italy but another ill-fated twist was just around the corner.
“Of course,” said McInally, who made his comeback off the bench in last Friday’s 28-13 win over Treviso at BT Murrayfield, when asked if he feared his rugby career could be over when he suffered that neck injury. “Everything I was told was that I was going to be fine but it was pretty bad at the start. I couldn’t move without being in pain, I had pain in my arm. So yes of course, these things do cross your mind, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. But fortunately everyone was confident and I was hitting all my markers week on week. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been in my neck now so I’m comfortable.”
The former George Watson’s College head boy was one of the stand-out Scottish players of his generation at youth level before making the move, as mentor Ross Ford had before him, from back row to hooker in a bid to maximise his potential in the professional ranks.
Selection for the World Cup squad justified that decision and repaid all the hard work of adjusting to the new position, so to miss out was a devastating setback.
“It was incredibly tough to take. It was horrible but I just tried to make sure I came back stronger,” said McInally.
He was delighted to make his return for Edinburgh bang on schedule in what was his first action for the club since May and added: “It’s been a long old four months and it was good to get out there even if it was only for 15 minutes. It blew away the cobwebs and gave me the reassurance that my neck is okay. The game [targeted for comeback] was always Treviso. I don’t know if I would have played or not if Ross hadn’t picked up a little niggle last week. But that’s the way it goes sometimes, as one door closes for Fordy another one opens for me.”
With the Six Nations just around the corner it could be seen as an ideal time to be back on the scene, but McInally said: “I’ve not even thought about that. When you get neck injuries the first thing is you make sure you can play again. For me it was just getting this game done. Now I might set some goals for the future but at the moment all I’m really thinking about is playing for Edinburgh because I’ve missed it.”
McInally paid tribute to the medical staff for helping back onto the pitch in good time, singling out the efforts of Edinburgh physio Tracy McAdam who spent countless hours writing programmes and on the phone to neck specialists.
Last week’s win over the Italian basement boys took Edinburgh up to third in the Guinness Pro12 and next up is the European Challenge Cup games against Agen at home on Friday then Grenoble away as last year’s runners-up look to make the knockout stage again.
Coach Alan Solomons has indicated that he will need to rest a few frontline players in the next couple of weeks but McInally is champing at the bit for game time. “Well I certainly don’t need a rest,” he noted. “I don’t know the situation with Ross and his ribs but I presume he won’t play this week because he’s had a good amount of game time on the bounce and it might be a good chance for me and Neil [Cochrane] to get a little run.”
McInally shared the widespread frustration at another bonus point going abegging as Edinburgh could only muster the three tries, but feels the club can look ahead to the next half of the season with confidence. He said: “There’s a bit more resilience and bit more belief, you saw that with back-to-back wins over Glasgow. If we can do that to the champions then you think what can we achieve?
“We have aspirations to finish in the top six and play Champions Cup next season but among the boys there is a feeling we can go further than top six.”