stu mcinally
It’s been good to see some fresh faces coming into the Scotland squad for this year’s Guinness Men’s Six Nations.  

Gregor Townsend has selected a settled squad, but with a couple of new names in there it shows we’re not content with what we’ve got. Internally, that puts pressure on players to perform. The guys know that the Union are looking for Scottish-qualified players, and if they’re good enough, they’re going to play. You just have to look at the calibre of individuals who are missing, including three British and Irish Lions in Chris Harris, Rory Sutherland and Hamish Watson.

Their omission from the squad underlines the quality of the guys playing in their position. In the back row, for instance, Andy Christie has been going very well down at Saracens. He’s always been someone who has impressed me: explosive in both attack and defence, slick and physical. Because Scotland have had a settled back row for a while, he’s just not had the game time in Test rugby. So not selecting Hamish, going with guys like Andy and Luke Crosbie – who have both played for Scotland before but aren’t as experienced as Hamish – does that suggest a changing of the guard? Time will tell.

Rory Darge being named co-captain with Finn Russell would support that theory. Rory’s such a tremendous player. Anyone who’s watched Glasgow or Scotland for the last couple of years knows the impact he has. His high work rate and breakdown skills are his flagship attributes, but It’s the little things he does that impress me: his footwork in contact – how he always seems to make those extra few metres. His strength in the tackle – always making the attacker work for every inch. He’s well-disciplined, tough and reliable. His leadership style won’t be about what he says, but what he does.

Finn, too, is a brilliant choice as co-captain. On the pitch, he is our leader. Deciding what plays we run and where. He has huge input to how the team trains and how the Test week looks. I know he spends a lot of time with Gregor, discussing plays and kick strategies for the week. He will watch an obscene amount of footage in the lead up to a Test match, always looking for those little gaps in the opposition defence. And a little gap is often all he needs to seemingly create something out of nothing.

This is the first post-Rugby World Cup campaign, so every nation will be without a host of players who have retired. In my case, my transition away from professional rugby has made it that much easier to be able to enjoy the Championship purely as a fan. I’ve just passed my first four exams towards becoming a pilot, and I’ve got another nine to go before I can realise my dream of flying for a commercial airline.

It can be hard for some guys when they retire to be fans straight away, especially if their last involvement was getting dropped by the national team, or their club saying there’s no contract for them. There can be an element of bitterness, perhaps. I chose to step out of rugby and into another passion – something I am fortunate to have – and have found this transition from player to supporter to be really smooth. I would encourage all professional athletes to think about their next plans before they absolutely have to.

Scotland travel to play Wales in Cardiff on Saturday. I always loved it there: the build-up, the bus ride through Cardiff and running out into a special Test arena. I saw one of my first away Scotland games there, the day after we’d played our U20s match against Wales next door at the Arms Park. It was the famous 2010 encounter when Wales came back and Shane Williams went under the posts at the end to win it. I remember being devastated as a Scotland fan, but being so in awe of the whole atmosphere. The Six Nations - It’s powerful, it gives you energy, it can break your heart. It can also make all your dreams come true. Scotland have had to wait over two decades to experience that in Cardiff. That’s been long enough.

That’s not to say we haven’t gone there with confidence before. We had loads of it going into this fixture in 2022. We had prepared well, had a strong team out and fully believed we were going to win. Then we got our pants pulled down.

That’s what Wales can do to you. Regardless of how their clubs are faring in the league, form goes out the window when they get together under Warren Gatland and pull on that red jersey. They’re just a different animal. You just have to look at Scotland’s record there to understand how hard it’s going to be on Sunday, but they will go there full of belief, and rightly so given the way they played last year in the Six Nations – especially against this Wales team. Ultimately, it’s a patch of grass and it’s 15 on 15. You’ve got to block out that noise, which is hard to do at a place as special as the Principality Stadium, but I believe we’re going to see a great match.

Technically, it’s not been 20-plus years since we beat Wales on their own turf, though. I’ve got good memories from our win at Parc y Scarlets in the 2020 Championship. It was our maul that went well that day and I benefited off the back of it to score a try. John Dalziel had just come in as forwards coach and had an immediate impact on how we mauled, which caught Wales off-guard. I remember it being really windy down there in Llanelli and thinking, ‘I just need to nail this lineout’. Luckily it was just about straight enough and I managed to latch on.

Jamie Ritchie got the turnover at the end and then there was the realisation that we’d managed to win in Wales, and got that monkey off our back. Still, it was bittersweet, because there were no fans there to see it happen [due to the pandemic]. For me, an international fixture is about the atmosphere, the noise, the cheering if you win and the heartache if you lose. The boys don’t really talk about that result. It feels like if we want to do it properly, it’s got to be in Cardiff.

Of the 30 hookers to make 100+ lineout throws in Guinness Six Nations history, former Scotland hooker Stuart McInally ranks in the top five for throw success rate and has the best rate of any Scotland player (88%, alongside Jamie George, Jerry Flannery, Ken Owens and Dylan Hartley).