Up to five players are in the frame to win their first Scotland caps against Italy in Turin on Saturday evening but, if it came down to an X-Factor-style decision to pick just one of the quintet to get the nod, then Stuart McInally has been, in the best traditions of that show, on the most heart-rending “journey”.
Of the other uncapped hopefuls named in the initial 25-man squad, which will today be cut to a starting XV and matchday 23 for the second World Cup warm-up Test, there is rookie wingers Damien Hoyland and Rory Hughes, newly-qualified South Africa-born prop WP Nel and ‘kilted Kiwi’ John Hardie, who first set foot on Scottish soil a mere month ago.
By contrast, Edinburgh stalwart McInally has endured a long and literally gut-wrenching wait for that elusive first cap. Before making the decision in the summer of 2013 to emulate his mentor Ross Ford and switch from back-row to hooker, the former George Watson’s College head boy agonisingly missed out when he was an unused back-row replacement in the autumn Test of the previous year against South Africa.
Since then the now 25-year-old has spent time at Bristol on loan learning the front-row ropes before returning to the Capital and becoming part of Alan Solomons’ leadership group. Injuries in the squad meant that McInally was occasionally forced to revert to his old flanker position last season but all the hard work and frustration looked set to be rewarded with a cap against Ireland last weekend. That was until fate intervened with one more cruel blow as the forward was struck down with a stomach bug after being named in the squad.
McInally explained: “I found out that I was meant to be involved in the game against Ireland. On Monday we trained, I felt fine, then on Monday night I was walking around the supermarket with my girlfriend and said ‘I’m really not feeling very well here’ and that night was one of the worst I’ve ever had.
“I rarely get ill but when I do it seems to hit me really hard and it was such a shame it was that week. I thought it was food poisoning and half the squad would probably be off but it was something else, one other guy had a slight upset stomach so maybe we just picked up a virus from somewhere or other.”
He continued: “I didn’t train the Tuesday or Wednesday, came in on Thursday; it was potentially my first cap and I really wanted to give it a go and have a chance to play. I just came in and within an hour they said, ‘Look, it’s a warm-up game, you need to take the emotions out of it being your first cap. We’ll just put Fraser [Brown] in’ and that’s what they did.
“I was very emotional and gutted. It’s been something I’ve waited for so long for. Having that taken away was pretty tough. But once I reflected on it, watching the game at home with my mum and dad I was very relieved I wasn’t playing, because I still wasn’t right. But on Sunday I felt back to 100 per cent.
“I’m looking forward to the cap, if I make it through this week! It’s funny, when I made the bench for that South Africa game people were congratulating me on being capped and then I didn’t get on. Boys haven’t quite been that way this week, they’re keen for me to actually get on the pitch now before they say that.”
McInally is pleased with his progress since making the switch to hooker.
“It wasn’t something I’d taken lightly as I was quite proud of what I had done in the back-row. I made that squad against South Africa and was eager to crack on. If I’d got on in that game, I probably wouldn’t have made the move.”
He revealed he has utilised some of his home city’s public spaces to hone the lineout throwing aspect of his new craft, attracting the ire of one of the local tree huggers.
“I wore a tree out throwing a ball at it,” revealed McInally. “That’s how I started, at Inverleith Park. I decided I’d do a lot of work on my own, with a bag of balls away from public eye, work and work and work and just see if I could do it well.
“I was doing that in the park before I’d really decided I was going to go for it [hooker]. One day a woman got angry and told me I shouldn’t be doing it. ‘You shouldn’t be throwing balls at trees’, she said. I just said ‘sorry’.”
It’s not just in rugby that McInally has sky-high ambitions, with the aim to secure his full pilot credentials soon.
“I’ve not got the licence yet,” he said. “I’ve just done my first solo navigation flight so all the work’s been done. I flew from Fife to Stirling, over Alloa where my Dad grew up, so that was pretty cool, then up to Crieff and along to Perth. I was on my own and it was good fun.
“It all depends on my World Cup involvement, but by the end of the year having the licence would be the goal. At the moment it is a hobby but certainly with a view to flying after the rugby is finished, for sure.”