Stuart McInally will finally reach double figures in Scotland caps against Samoa on Saturday although, given the bad luck which has afflicted him in the past, the 27-year-old will be taking nothing for granted until he crosses that white line at BT Murrayfield and the whistle blows.
The Edinburgh forward was a young back-row prospect five years ago when he was left stranded as an unused replacement in the November Test against South Africa. After converting to hooker, he worked his way back into the national set-up and was picked for a first cap in the World Cup warm-up against Ireland in Dublin, only to be struck by a stomach bug on the eve of the game.
He finally did get his Test debut in the subsequent friendly against Italy in Turin but more misfortune was to strike when, after being named in Vern Cotter’s World Cup squad, he suffered a neck injury which ruled him out of the tournament.
All these mishaps pale, however, in comparison with the frustrations of last season. Things started brightly when the soon-to-depart coach Alan Solomons named the former George Watson’s College head boy and Grant Gilchrist as his co-captains for the 2016-17 campaign. Things went rapidly downhill from there as Edinburgh struggled, Solomons left, and both the dual skippers suffered wretched struggles with form and fitness.
“I was named as co-captain at the start of the year, my home club, something I was desperate to do for a number of years and to be named as co-captain was awesome, and then I just didn’t manage to get a starting spot all year.
“I think I started six games and was on the bench for maybe like 20. It was really frustrating, especially because of the ambitions I had to play for Scotland as well. Because I wasn’t playing for Edinburgh I wasn’t going to play for Scotland. It was a tough year, but that made me go back to square one, not too much pressure, just focusing on myself, and I’m probably better for it.
“I’d say it was the toughest spell. Maybe the start of changing to hooker was tough, too, but that was quite exciting as well. My expectations of how the year would go and how it actually went were so different.”
McInally has made an impressive start to the current season and might well have been handed the No 2 jersey regardless of the series-wrecking injuries to Ross Ford and Fraser Brown, which have added to casualty list that includes the bulk of Scotland’s frontline loosehead props.
“I was obviously delighted to be named in the autumn squad first and foremost,” said McInally. “I also feel for Ross and Fraser, I’ve been in that position before around the World Cup when you get lengthy injuries at inconvenient times.
“I feel for Ross. I see him day to day and know how hard he works, know how desperate he is to play for Scotland. I know he’s hugely disappointed he’s had to take a step back at this time. I’m just pleased to be here and, if I get chosen to play, then that’s great.
“You know how things can change in the blink of an eye. Going into that World Cup I was so excited having been so ready to go, and then at the last minute being told you’ll be out for four months.It does make you appreciate being in the squad even more.”
McInally has clearly responded well to the influence of former England hooker Richard Cockerill, who has been putting his stamp on Edinburgh after taking the head coach job.
“He does give me hints and tips,” said the player. “There’s one for striking the ball at the scrum he gave me, a little technique he used to use back in the day and he did say, ‘it might work, it might not,’ but actually I use it and it works really well. I owe that to him.
“The good thing about Richard is that he knows the pressure you’re under as a hooker at setpiece. But he doesn’t put heaps of pressure on me. If I throw the odd bad lineout, he doesn’t mind so long as I’m contributing around the pitch. So, in training, if I miss a lineout, he doesn’t get on at me he just makes me throw it again, doesn’t send me to the back of the queue to wait for another shot. He just says, ‘you’re doing it again’.
“I think what you guys perceive about Richard and what you see is different. He is a really smart technical coach. He can be hard on us as well, don’t get me wrong, but, in terms of what I’ve got out of him, the way he approaches training is he puts me under enough pressure but not too much, if that makes sense.”
George Turner is likely to be named on the bench when Gregor Townsend announces his team today, which would be a remarkable moment for a player who has struggled to establish himself in the pro-team arena. He was loaned from Edinburgh to Glasgow at the start of the season and has grasped the opportunity presented by Brown’s knee injury.
“I’m so pleased for George because I’ve known for a long time what a good player he was and he never got a shot at Edinburgh,” said McInally. “I always knew that if he got a shot, he’d do really well and I’m so happy that he’s managed to get to Glasgow and get game after game after game.
“With Fraser out at the start of the year, there’s been a huge opportunity for him to play. I can’t speak highly enough of George, he works really hard and I know he was really frustrated at Edinburgh.
“I was frustrated on the bench and he was frustrated at not even playing. So we had a lot in common, not being where we wanted to be.”