Japan v Scotland: High flier Stuart McInally gets his big chance

Stuart McInally
Stuart McInally is set for his second Scotland start at hooker after starting his career as a back-row
Japan v Scotland
Venue: Toyota City Stadium, Toyota Date: Saturday 18 June Kick-off: 11:20 BST
Coverage: Live on BBC Two Scotland, the BBC Sport website and app.

Since midway through the Six Nations of 2007, Ross Ford has not so much retained the Scotland number two jersey as worn it like a second skin.

Ford is sitting on 99 caps, a century denied him this weekend in Toyota City against Japan because of a tight calf that might rule him out next week in Tokyo as well. It's no understatement to say this is freakish.

The 32-year-old does not miss Scotland games through injury very often.

The 2016 Six Nations: started all five; the 2015 World Cup: started all five; the 2015 Six Nations: started all five. This has been the way of it for much of the past decade. You could hang your hat on two things on a Scotland matchday - Ford and Flower of Scotland.

It's too early to say there is a changing of the guard in the middle of the Scotland scrum, but Stuart McInally has a big opportunity on Saturday and enough game to make the most of it. He's 26 and driven. One Test match start and six more off the bench.

McInally wins his eighth cap on Saturday and, at the Toyota Stadium on Friday, he spoke about his journey.

Stuart McInally
McInally made his Scotland debut against Italy in Turin in the build-up to the World Cup

Or his lack of journey. He was supposed to go to the World Cup but didn't. He made the farewell dinner and that was as far as he went.

"I'd just been in the gym a couple of days before that dinner doing an exercise and I felt something ping in my neck, thought it was nothing and it turned out to be a prolapsed disc," McInally recalls.

"I didn't know at the time how severe it was, whether it needed surgery. It took about four months to recover.

"It was tough, but people have had to retire from neck injuries, so I'm just glad I managed to get myself back. It certainly made me desperate to get involved again."

Taking to the skies

Professional rugby players have to find the positive in every situation, no matter how grim. Miss the World Cup? Use the time to strengthen the neck muscles and return a stronger man.

Start off life as a back-row forward? Switch to hooker to advance your career. Have a faltering beginning in your new position? Learn to fly.

Yes, learn to fly.

"During the move to hooker (in 2013), there were a lot of dark times, from playing every week (in the back row) for Edinburgh to not playing at all or maybe being on the bench for Currie," he explains.

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"It was a massive turnaround and I was very frustrated a lot of the time and felt that it [learning to fly a light aircraft] allowed me to take my mind off it.

"When you're flying, you can't think about anything else, something that I can do on my own and was in complete control of. It helped me switch off."

It worked. In August, McInally made his Scotland debut at hooker against Italy in Turin. Then came the neck injury and the lay-off and then the renaissance.

Sixteen minutes off the bench as Ford's understudy against England in the Six Nations then another 16 minutes against Wales, 17 against Italy, 13 glorious minutes against France and an eye-catching half-hour against Ireland in Dublin.

'I'm now very comfortable at hooker'

Now he is in from the beginning and thinking about the past.

"When I started, the first part was to practice my throwing," he said. "It was something I would do every day.

"I borrowed a bag of balls from Murrayfield - I've still got them, I suppose I should return them - and would go down to Inverleith Park and find a tree that was a nice height with a split at the top and a V so I would try to get it through there.

"I knew that throwing would be the thing I needed to work on. I knew that, if I wanted to make it work, it was something I would have to do.

"I was doing it one day when an old woman told me that I shouldn't be throwing balls at a tree because there was bark flying everywhere.

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Cotter expects 'tough test' from Japan

"I used to get really hung up on my throwing. I'd worry if I was throwing well and that would determine whether I had a good game or a bad game.

"There is so much more to the position now - that's something I've learned. I'm very comfortable. Making a mistake now, if that happens, I just get on with it, whereas before it would play on my mind for a couple of weeks."

On Saturday, he comes up against a wily old dog in Shota Horie, the 42-cap veteran who McInally describes as "an exceptional player and someone I will be looking to have a good battle with".

Nothing comes easy. McInally's rise, on the back of hard graft, is living proof of it.

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