MICHAEL Bradley in the coaching booth in an Edinburgh stand, Stuart McInally powering clear for a stunning try on the way to earning the man of the match award, a European campaign beginning with his club meeting London Irish…

It was all evocative of the headiest days of McInally’s career, but how things have changed in the ensuing five years, leading up to next weekend’s visit to the Reading-based club.

Within a year of steering Edinburgh through that unprecedented 2012/13 campaign that no side has come close to emulating since, as they topped their pool and overcame Europe’s most successful club Toulouse to reach the Heineken Cup semi-final Bradley had been unceremoniously sacked. Another few months on and McInally had been advised that he had no real future in the back-row and had followed the lead of Ross Ford, his clubmate who has since become Scotland’s most capped player, by switching to the front-row. Edinburgh have moved home. London Irish, a permanent fixture in the English top flight to that point, have meanwhile only just returned to it after a season in the second tier Championship.

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In fairness the one thing that has improved is the quality of McInally’s latest vital try, scored against his former coach’s new club Zebre as Edinburgh ended a three match losing sequence and avoided the embarrassment of successive defeats to Italian sides on their home pitch at Myreside, the ground where the born-again hooker first impressed when he was head boy at George Watson’s College a decade or so ago.

“I don’t know how far it was, but I don’t score many tries so we’ll call it 50,” he laughed before, at the grand old age of 27, admitting that the passage of time may also have influenced that view.

“It was maybe a wee bit longer than the London Irish try but that was a long time ago and I’m definitely older. The lungs felt it more,” he added.

He readily acknowledged how things have changed for his club as they prepare for this year’s gear change from the Pro14 to Europe.

“This feels totally different to be honest,” he said. “Back then it was the Heineken Cup and not to take anything away from the Challenge Cup but it’s not where we want to be playing. We want to be playing in that top tier of Europe, but we’ve got to be realistic in where we are at the moment, we’re in the Challenge Cup and we’re in a rebuilding phase and for me that’s really exciting because we’ve got so much room for improvement.

“It’s been a tough opening to the season with three wins and three losses. We’ve shown some good stuff and I feel we’re moving in the right direction. It was never going to be a quick fix with [coach] Richard [Cockerill] coming in.”

He noted that the new head coach, a former international hooker, has been working him hard, particularly on his line-out throwing and that he believes he is improving as a result of getting more time on the pitch.

For all the reservations he expressed about the refereeing of the match and his team’s game management on Friday night, ex-England and Leicester man Cockerill, brought up in a win-at-pretty much all costs mentality, was meanwhile pleased with the way his team worked out how to get back to winning ways against Zebre and, after also expressing his continued admiration for former coach Bradley and his methods, McInally believes the nature of that match stands his side in good stead for the gear change.

“London Irish have spent a year in the Championship throwing the ball around, scoring a lot of tries and certainly Zebre did a lot of that, so that’s great preparation for us,” he said.

“The fact that they were prepared to play from anywhere was just a real test for our defence. I don’t know how many tackles we made but I felt we were defending for a lot of it. So to concede only 15 points, maybe we’re not overly happy with our defensive performance, but on the whole we made a lot of tackles and we had a lot of good defensive sets.

“We want to win every game. That’s Richard’s mentality and that’s what he’s bringing to us, is that every game we want to win. We’re not at all taking it lightly, we want to win next week and the week after in Russia and go as far in that competition as possible.”