Stuart McInally takes to the skies and plots course for World Cup

By Jamie Lyall and James MitchellBBC Scotland
Edinburgh hooker Stuart McInally takes to the skies

Stuart McInally's exquisite manners show just the merest signs of fraying as he leans over his shoulder to evaluate the progress of two ham-fisted blokes grappling with a camera mount in the cockpit behind him.

"I need to do my pre-flight checks," he offers by way of polite reminder.

Aviation is an industry of precision, and with an instructor approaching briskly down the grass verge, and a suitably pricey hour in the air ahead of him, tardiness will not do.

Edinburgh's barnstorming hooker dons headphones and consults a small notepad that resembles a postage stamp in his vast hands, before swooping into the Glenrothes sky.

Sure, he aches desperately for a Scotland cap, and 24-year-old McInally has served a longer apprenticeship in that regard than most, but this mild July afternoon is dedicated to the pursuit of a very different yearning.

Scotland's Stuart McInally pushing weights in the gym
McInally is one of three hookers in Vern Cotter's Rugby World Cup training squad

"Going on holiday as a kid it was just as exciting for me going to the airport and seeing the planes take off and land as it was going on the holiday," our aspiring airline pilot recalls. "That might sound stupid, but that's where the love sort of began.

"Now I'm in a position where I carry on chasing my dream again and start learning to fly."

Two years ago, an arduous, at times apparently hopeless trek lay ahead of him as he swapped the back row for a tilt at hooker - a voyage that began with the metronomic drilling of specialised technical skills.

Flying became his escape route, the boundless skies his Eden where, for one precious hour, he could discard all the niggles and the doubt and the anxiety that plagues the professional sportsman.

"I was going from playing every week for Edinburgh in the back row to suddenly not playing at all," he explains.

"It was tough, I was doing all this extra strength in the gym on my neck, throwing every second of every day, and there were times where I'd questioned whether it was the right decision.

"There were some dark times and this gives me a chance to step back from it all and forget about it. There's so much going on when you're up in the sky - you've got all the controls to worry about, the radios, you can't think about anything else.

Stuart McInally crashes over to score Edinburgh's first try against the Dragons in the European Challenge Cup semi-final
McInally was typically abrasive in European Challenge Cup action against the Dragons, scoring the game's first try

"There's a good saying that when you take off, you leave the runway behind, and it's about leaving everything else in your life behind, because all you can focus on at that point is the cockpit."

When McInally clambers from the hotseat, re-entering normality as his soles kiss tarmac, he can reflect on the fruits of his transition.

He is firmly in contention for Vern Cotter's World Cup 31, the curious caveat being that his rivals, club-mate Ross Ford and Glasgow Warriors' Fraser Brown, have tackled the same positional shift, albeit under more natural circumstances, earlier in their careers.

"I wanted to add value to the pack and play like a back row in that number two jersey," McInally muses.

"I think a lot of hookers who start at hooker maybe aren't - I don't know how to say it - they're not back-row players, they're not as mobile. Growing up, as you get older, coaches I feel want as many of these mobile players on the pitch as possible.

"I guess that's what myself, Fraser and Ross all boast. I always find a lot of players have moved from back row to hooker before pro-rugby, and that's because they want to play pro-rugby, and then they've gone on to play for Scotland.

"I've played 58 times for Edinburgh, and now I'm moving to hooker - I was always like, well, what could I achieve? Could it be even better than what these guys have done?"

Fraser Brown training for Scotland in preparation for the Rugby World Cup
Fraser Brown is a fellow back-row convert and a rival for McInally

Edinburgh, like McInally, have endured a testing two-year period of strategic upheaval under the piercing eye of head coach Alan Solomons.

Their present status was typified by a thunderous run to last season's European Challenge Cup final - the progress was evident, but the underwhelming showpiece loss was a reminder of the patience still demanded in spades.

"We never said we wanted to be a direct team who do not offload and are based solely on defence and physicality," asserts McInally. "What we wanted to say was that's where we're starting.

"We wanted to become a team that was incredibly physical, incredibly good at defence, and then it was about evolving our attack. Alan had a very clear plan - it was building foundations, and next year we will be attacking a lot more.

"I'd say a lot of those comments were unfair. We see Glasgow lifting trophies; that's where we want to be. What Alan's done is nail down parts of our game, six months, eight months at a time, and now they're all going to be coming together next year.

"I'm really excited with the squad we've got. Yes, we've got a lot of overseas players, but they all add a lot of quality to our team.

"We have been improving - we're not having spikes where we're in the semi-final of the Heineken Cup and 11th in the league."

Edinburgh head coach Alan Solomons watches on
Alan Solomons has revolutionised Edinburgh's rugby

Perhaps being plunged into a national camp generously populated by Warriors buoyed and invigorated by their Pro12 glory is challenging while Edinburgh glance enviously up the table.

"The Glasgow guys are all humble guys, they're not rubbing it in our faces, it's not that kind of environment," counters McInally.

"Glasgow just have this constant desire to improve themselves - to improve the individual, the team, other people.

"On the flip side, we work very much on improving our set-piece and improving aspects together. I think they could also learn little things from us about physicality and certainly the importance of set-piece and how that's paid off."

Little milestones are paramount for McInally, the industrious trainer and diligent student, since coming within inches of a Test debut as an unused replacement against South Africa three years ago.

"When I did my first take-off, for example, it gave me such a big lift," he enthuses. "It's something I've wanted to do for I don't know how many years, and then suddenly I was ready to face the rugby on Monday again."

McInally's aircraft may be a dainty-looking thing -"a washing machine", as his old pal Greig Laidlaw likes to tease - a touch incongruous with its pilot, but as he begins his long-awaited ascent towards international honours, it is this modest cream contraption that has, in every sense, proved his vehicle for success.

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