Summer tour skipper Stuart McInally says being handed the Scotland captaincy is the icing on the cake following a season which has seen his career emerge from some dark shadows in resurgent fashion.
The 27-year-old was left kicking his heels this time last year after missing out on the trip to Singapore, Australia and Fiji. He had some back issues but the truth is he had slipped out of the international reckoning following a fairly miserable campaign.
Poor form and injury had seen him lose the Edinburgh co-captaincy and, as Ross Ford, Fraser Brown and George Turner took the hooker slots in Gregor Townsend’s maiden squad, McInally knew that he was at a crossroads.
What followed was a storming season for club and country, with a string of impressive showings in the autumn Tests – and Six Nations in particular – leading his Edinburgh coach, Richard Cockerill, to label him one of the form hookers in world rugby.
“It’s definitely the pinnacle,” said McInally yesterday at Scotland’s Oriam base as he discussed his ascent to the captaincy in the absence of John Barclay and Greig Laidlaw.
“I didn’t think it would ever happen but the way this season has gone, and the players who are not going on tour, created an opportunity for me to do it. I’m really excited about the challenge.”
McInally revealed that Townsend had called him the morning after Edinburgh’s season had ended with a frustrating tight loss at Munster in the Guinness Pro14 quarter-finals, which proved just the tonic following that disappointment in Limerick.
“I had no idea. You see his [Townsend’s] name pop up [on the phone] and you’re a bit confused. He made it clear straight away what he was calling for, so it was nice to hear his thoughts on why he wanted to choose me. I then went and had a coffee with him and spoke a bit about the tour and he gave me a bit of a head’s up on the schedule, who was going and stuff.
“That Munster game was a huge missed opportunity. I don’t look back at it too much but I’m still annoyed about it.
“We were the better team for large parts of that game. It was disappointing to lose it. So, yeah, it was a complete swing when Gregor told me I was going to be captain. I just had to park Edinburgh for the season and focus on this.”
McInally struggles to put his finger on the reasons behind the vast improvements he made to his game this season.
“I just try to train hard,” he said. “There’s no real secret formula to it. This last year I’ve just been trying to keep my head down, almost do less of the leading stuff.
“But it’s funny how when you try to lead less, you end up doing it just by the way you’re playing. You almost do it without realising, which is possibly the best way. When you start overthinking it I don’t think it’s that effective.
“I just knew that I had to reset a bit and the way that year had gone I had to just start again – and that’s what I did, enjoyed pre-season with Edinburgh and just forgot about Scotland for a bit. As a result of putting Edinburgh before everything else, I started playing better and the Scotland thing came back. The less you think about it the quicker it came back around.”
It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes levels of sleuthing to speculate that the change in coach at Edinburgh last summer has played a part in McInally’s renaissance. Richard Cockerill is a respected former England international in the same hooker position and brought with him the kind of forceful personality which reanimated the slumbering capital pro team and took them to knockout games in both the Pro14 and Europe during what was easily the club’s best season for a decade.
“I think it did help having a new coach,” agrees McInally. “I was just totally fresh. It was like joining a new club, in a way.
“The way he was running it was totally different to anything we had done before. We had a new S&C [strength and conditioning] coach, so all the fitness stiff we were doing for pre-season was totally different.
“I think that really helped to start again – get your head down and work hard to impress a new coach.”
McInally confessed that there was some trepidation in the ranks about the arrival of a new boss with a fiery reputation but that it had quickly become clear that was merely a one-dimensional caricature of Cockerill.
“That [reputation] is all we really had to go on and I was really quite surprised at how smart he was in terms of the gameplan and how open he was to playing a brand of rugby that is really enjoyable. I know everyone at Edinburgh has really enjoyed what he’s brought. It was exactly what we needed – that level of discipline which we had, without really knowing it, drifted away from the last couple of seasons. Suddenly you get that into line and it allows you to focus on other parts of your game like throwing the ball around a bit more.”
Looking ahead to the tour itself, and the successive Saturday Tests against Canada on Saturday 9 June and then United States and Argentina, McInally believes conditions, particularly in Houston against the USA Eagles, will be ideal preparation for the fast- approaching 2019 World Cup in Japan.
“Some of the boys played [in Houston] last time [June 2014] and still talk about it,” said the skipper.
“We played in Japan a couple of years ago and that was like playing in a sauna. I remember walking out into the stadium and thinking it was like walking into a sauna because the changing rooms were so well air-conditioned.
“We are expecting that second game to be so hot and humid but it will be good actually because Japan is just around the corner and it will be a good chance to see how we cope in that heat. I’m sure it will be fun.”