EDINBURGH’s magnificent European Challenge Cup campaign – which will reach its denouement when they play the final against Gloucester at Twickenham Stoop next Friday night – has their long-suffering fans salivating about the prospect of some meaningful silverware finally making its way north of the border.
However, Stuart McInally has insisted that the rather less glamorous task of securing victory in the Guinness Pro12 at home to lowly Zebre this evening is being viewed as a far greater priority by those inside the camp.
Our only route into the Champions Cup is making the top six. That’s our focusStuart McInally
“Winning the Challenge Cup would be great – next week will be a wonderful occasion for the club – but it’s nothing more than a nice sideline. So, we’ve put that to one side because our only route into the Champions Cup is making the top six, and that’s what our focus is. If we lose this game and other results go against us, then it’s all over for us,” said the 24-year-old.
Edinburgh are currently eighth in the Pro12 table, a single point behind both Scarlets and Connacht, with three games to play.
It could hardly be tighter, and McInally is acutely aware that every point going is likely to be vital in the final reckoning.
“Bonus points will be important – I’m not saying we need to get one this week, but it wouldn’t go amiss. We’re going out there to win, and if we have a sniff after 60 minutes – with a couple of tries in the bag and a decent lead – then we have to be able to crack on and take full advantage,” he said.
McInally converted from breakaway forward to hooker during the summer of 2013 and has shown the potential to become a genuine challenger to Ross Ford at both club and international level. However, that project has been put on hold in recent weeks so that he can help dig Edinburgh out of a back-row injury crisis.
David Denton and Tomas Leonardi are concussed and neither player has started the mandatory return to play protocol yet, which makes them major doubts for next Friday; while Hamish Watson has been struggling with a hamstring complaint but is rated by head coach Alan Solomons as a “good prospect” for selection against Gloucester.
Cornel du Preez is also in with a shout of starting against Gloucester if he gets sufficient time off the bench tonight to convince Solomons that his match fitness is up to scratch after six months out with an ankle injury.
“I’m still trying to play like a back-rower, so I haven’t changed my body shape much at all. I knew I was comfortable moving back there if I was asked and with the injuries we’ve got at the moment it wasn’t going to be an issue,” said McInally.
“It’s nice to be able to go back and forth, but the reason I moved to hooker was to challenge Ross for that number two jersey – it wasn’t to become this indispensible back-up player coming off the bench. So, if I’m not needed in the back-row next week then my focus will be back on becoming the best hooker I can possibly be – but it would be nice to be involved.”
Solomons has made only one enforced change in Edinburgh’s starting line-up after last weekend’s momentous Challenge Cup semi-final victory over the Dragons. Jack Cuthbert has a groin injury and is awaiting the results of a scan, so is replaced by Tom Brown.
The decision not to tinker more with the team is partially dictated by the limited options available with so many frontline players out injured, but mainly because there is a sense of momentum about the capital outfit at the moment which Solomons doesn’t want to disrupt.
“I’ve played 11 games this season so far and only lost three of them, so confidence is definitely building and winning is becoming a bit more of a habit.
“It’s not arrogance – we don’t go out there expecting to win, but we know that if we play well, like we did against the Dragons last week, then we will beat Zebre.
“We feel we have earned that right to go out and believe we can beat anyone – especially at home,” said McInally.
“This is certainly the most enjoyable season I’ve had so far with Edinburgh, because the whole togetherness of the squad has become so important. The boys really want to go out there and play for each other and for the badge – which is coming through in our performances,” he continued.
“Alan demands such high standards from the players and anything less than that is unacceptable. We all have one-on-one meetings with him on Mondays and, if you’ve played poorly at the weekend, then he’ll tell you in no uncertain terms.
“He’s been round long enough not to sugar-coat anything. That’s something the players have really responded to.
“Alan came in at the start of last season with a vision of what we needed to do to be a top-six team and I think it’s fair to say we struggled to adapt to that initially and we maybe looked all over the place – but we’re now playing the way he wants us to play.”
“We’re making the right decisions on the park, our attack has evolved enormously over the last year and we’re generally a much more complete team.”
Edinburgh Rugby v Zebre, at BT Murrayfield, tonight, 7:35pm
15 - Tom Brown
14 - Dougie Fife
13 - Sam Beard
12 - Andries Strauss
11 - Tim Visser
10 - Phil Burleigh
9 - Sam Hidalgo-Clyne
1 - Alasdair Dickinson
2 - Ross Ford
3 - WP Nel
4 - Anton Bresler
5 - Ben Toolis
6 - Stuart McInally
7 - Roddy Grant
8 - Mike Coman
Neil Cochrane, Rory Sutherland, John Andress, Fraser McKenzie, Cornell Du Preez, Nathan Fowles, Tom Heathcote, Carl Bezuidenhout.