Three years ago, Stuart McInally was an ambitious young No 8. He had already won Scotland A caps, was playing regularly for Edinburgh and seemed to be heading for a solid career with Test caps on the horizon.
Maybe it was the spirit of adventure that also prompted him to take flying lessons; maybe a cold analytical decision; probably a bit of both – but he decided to throw it all in and gamble on relaunching himself into the rugby fray as a hooker.
It was not a natural move for somebody 6ft 3ins tall, but he firmly believed he could reinvent the position and go on to become an international regular, instead of probably having to make do with a handful of caps in his old role.
Everything so far suggests he is right. It took him seven months to go from his first game in the front row to starting for Scotland before the World Cup in a game when the coaches were experimenting with new combinations.
He was named in the World Cup squad – though he then picked up a neck injury training in the gym and was cruelly ruled out at the last moment – and now after a run of games from the bench in the Six Nations, he is ready for start No2 and the hope of a run in the team.
“When I moved to hooker I was aiming to keep playing like a back row,” he explained. “I did not really want to model myself on the traditional hooker but do something a wee bit different. The goal is certainly to take the jersey for as long as I can. This is the next match, all I can do is control how I play. It’s really exciting.
“I’ve taken confidence from playing for Scotland during the Six Nations,” he added. “I know I can do it, I can scrum and throw and get round the park at this level. I do feel that I still have a lot to learn and I’m fortunate that I see and work with Ross Ford every day at Edinburgh.
“He is an exceptional player and person and he has never once declined a request to help me. At the end of training if I ask for ten extra throws he has never once said no. I’m very lucky to have him there as someone to learn from, and I still feel I have a long way to go.”
Where immediately he is going is the Toyota City Stadium in Japan where he is taking on a side that have been working hard to lower hopes and expectations among their followers. Japan had their moment of glory when they beat South Africa in the World Cup, but paid the price when they could not sustain their frantic pace for the whole of the game against Scotland four days later and ran out 45-10 losers. It was a defeat with heavy consequences as they went on to become the first team to win three pool games and still be eliminated.
Nor have they lost since, but they have not been able to keep the core of their team together either. Of that side that played South Africa, eight are unavailable; nine of the side that played Scotland. A lot of injuries and a lot of rebuilding are costing them all that big-match experience.
“This is going to be the first game for the new Japanese side,” said Hitoshi Ono, the veteran lock, who will be winning his 97th cap at the age of 38. “We are the challengers in this game. We need to do well for the whole 80 minutes and see what comes. Many people think Scotland are going to win – the same as the South Africa side in the last World Cup. In a good way I would like to break everybody’s hopes, just like we did to South Africa.”
For a team that rely on pace and guile to keep the game flowing at a speed that few can handle, it is odd to think that Japan’s biggest strength is probably Ono and the rest of the front five. They scrum low enough to cause problems for many teams and though they lack height in the lineout, move the target around quickly enough to be reasonably secure on their own ball.
Scotland have to find ways to counter all that, and Jonathan Humphreys, the forwards coach, knows that battle will be key to the result. Scotland have the power to over-run their opponents but need to make it count. “It’s difficult but not something you can go completely outside your own process to combat,” he said of the set-piece battle. “You have to be aware of the opposition strengths but try not to negate your own. We are a team that very much concentrate on what we do but we’re aware we’re up against a very good opponent at the weekend.
“They are an excellent team. They have got a few different personnel from the World Cup but are still pretty effective in the games we’ve seen recently. Their maul hurt us in the World Cup and we have to be very much on top of our game if we’re going to come out on top.”