Stuart McInally patiently waits on hooker role

Stuart McInally coaches kids at Merchiston Castle School. Picture: SNS
Stuart McInally coaches kids at Merchiston Castle School. Picture: SNS
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IF YOU are feeling a bit out of sorts with Edinburgh Rugby at the moment then spare a thought for Stuart McInally.

The former breakaway returned to the club over the summer in his new guise as a hooker having spent the second half of last season learning the front row ropes with Bristol in England’s Championship.

His return to action this season has been delayed while a troublesome ankle has mended and, when he did finally make his opening appearance of the season last Sunday against London Welsh, it was right back where he started…in the back row. Having learned to hit the bull at the lineout and, after mastering the art of hooking the ball in the scrum, McInally finds himself backing up the back row for the second leg of the London Welsh double header this afternoon for the second weekend running.

He must be a tad frustrated?

“I wouldn’t say frustrating,” says McInally. “The chats I have had with Alan [Solomons] and Stevie [Scott], they see me as a hooker and they will try to get me on the field at hooker, although I am covering back row. It’s just for injury’s sake, I am on the bench in case one of the back rows goes down.

“I am not frustrated. I am focusing on how happy I am to be back playing for Edinburgh. I’d forgotten how much I’d missed playing for the club until I ran out last week against London Welsh. Just getting a taste of being back in the mix with my home club was just amazing. Just to reiterate, I am a hooker but the club needs me to cover back row and the club comes first, of course, so that’s where I’ll cover.

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“In a way, its beneficial to get a few 20-minute slots here and there, even if it is in the back row, just to get used to the collisions in the Pro12 again because it is a hugely physical league. I know for a fact that, as soon as the other back rows are fit and available, I will get a run at hooker.”

McInally will have to find a way past Ross Ford, currently sidelined with a bad back, and Neil Cochrane, who starts in the middle of the front row today.

The three men share something in common, they all started in the back row before making the move to the coalface and McInally freely admits that he picks the brains of the two more experienced players for handy hints. The presence of those two earlier converts to the front row religion has confirmed to McInally that the switch can be successful, although he harboured doubts at the start.

“I have enjoyed learning the new skills of scrumming and throwing,” he says. “I wasn’t initially keen on the move but the coaches said they just want me to play like an extra back rower and just learn to throw and scrum. I am managing to scrum OK, because I am taller I struggle to get a full strike with my foot so I have been working on striking with my knee and I’ve become quite effective with that.

“Seeing Neil [Cochrane] and Fordy has given me confidence that it [the move] can be done. The frustrating thing for me is that I have picked up niggling injuries. I had hoped for a smoother transition. I really hoped that, when I came back from Bristol, I would be in a position to push Fordy for that hooker’s jersey but, unfortunately, the first 12 weeks of the season were a write-off.”

It is a quirk of rugby life that Edinburgh’s record of three victories in Europe’s Challenge Cup matches their three league wins to date. They sit eighth in the Guinness Pro12 and have conceded three tries per match, more than any other club with the sole exception of bottom-feeders Treviso. That stat may help explain why defence coach Omar Mouneimne has returned to South Africa already and, if Edinburgh continue to struggle, Solomons will presumably follow suit.

Edinburgh started the season well with a rare victory over Munster at Thomond Park and then lost all that goodwill and momentum when Connacht beat them at Murrayfield the very next weekend and by the very same 14-13 scoreline.

McInally adds: “I will concede that we are very frustrated with our inconsistency so I can understand why our supporters get frustrated by it, too.”

As part of the leadership group at the club, he takes his share of responsibility and says: “We have proved we can beat teams like Bordeaux this year and we had a good result against Leinster last season, but then we go away and lose to Zebre. It’s just hugely frustrating for the coaches and the players. It’s our job to work out why we are so inconsistent and look to become more consistent. We want to be a hard team to beat but to do that you need to be consistent and that is what we are working on.”

So, has he any clues as to why his home town club can barely produce two decent games on the bounce, never mind perform for an entire season?

“No,” is the honest response. “It’s the top priority on our agenda, to figure out what we have to do. It shouldn’t matter who comes into that squad, we have a big squad for a reason, they need to perform and, unfortunately, we are trying to figure out if there are different things we can do at training just to supplement that.”

Solomons insisted in midweek that the Challenge Cup is not a “Mickey Mouse” competition as some have claimed. The truth is that Edinburgh’s opposition is good and interested… but not at the same time. The French teams are good but focused on the Top 14, while London Welsh may be interested but, without a win all season, they aren’t terribly good. Another victory in Europe will at least give Edinburgh Rugby something to celebrate this Christmas.

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