McCusker keen to leave side in strong position
THE dreaded ice chambers of Spala await Rob McCusker and his fellow Wales squad members on Sunday.
But first, the Scarlets skipper is desperate to ensure the Arctic chill forecast for the UK this weekend doesn't freeze up the region's bid to get their season back up and running.
Murrayfield has often been something of a barren wasteland for the men from Llanelli.
In the short history of the Celtic league they have won just once at the home of Scottish rugby — a record McCusker is keen to improve before he and 11 others head off to Poland where the Spartan surrounds of a national training camp awaits.
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"We had a sit down as a squad this week and mapped out our plans for the next six or seven games — these two league matches, Edinburgh and Zebre, are massive to keep us up there in the Rabo," said the North Walian.
Of course, victory would also help ease the frustration of a Heineken Cup campaign that has been similarly lukewarm.
The Scarlets were always going to be up against it in a pool containing two of the favourites for European rugby's premier club prize.
But there has been a feeling at Parc y Scarlets that many of the wounds from their defeats to Clermont and Leinster have been self-inflicted.
"We are obviously disappointed just to get the solitary point out of the last two games," added McCusker.
"We had a real focus for these games, we played some good stuff in parts, but ultimately we have shot ourselves in the foot far too often.
"But we are not in a bad place, it is about keeping confidence and sticking to our guns.
"We are looking to get back on track against Edinburgh, who will have a similar focus, they will want to prove a point. They are a dangerous proposition — a side who will feel they are better than their last couple of results have shown."
Victory against the Scots — who failed to register a point in their European maulings at the hands of Saracens and Munster — would certainly give McCusker and Co a spring in their step as they head to Heathrow on Saturday.
And the man who took over the armband from Matthew Rees in the summer believes those left behind are well equipped to keep the Scarlets pushing hard in the top four of the Pro12 table.
"If we can beat Edinburgh and stay in the top two, it will be nice to know we have left the side in a strong position," he added.
"But we have made some good signings and have plenty of talented players to come in who can carry on in our absence.
"We perhaps have lacked consistency in the league over the last couple of years — hopefully we can stay in that top four for the rest of the season."
A strong individual performance from the 26-year-old will also keep him in Rob Howley's thoughts as Wales's interim coach ponders how to replace the injured Dan Lydiate for the opening Test of the autumn against Argentina on November 10.
Former Wales captain Ryan Jones appears favourite, but McCusker — who has operated at No. 8 for the majority of the season — and his regional colleagues Aaron Shingler and Josh Turnbull will want to be heading into the autumn in peak form, especially with an abrasive four-Test series likely to throw up plenty of opportunities.
"It's nice to be back in the fold. It's been a while," admitted McCusker, who won the last of his four caps against France in Paris some 19 months ago.
"Although I'm a senior player here at the Scarlets, I'm a relative newbie in the Welsh squad and there are obviously more senior players than me there.
"It will be kind of nice not to have all eyes on you looking for a call or what happens next. Maybe there will a bit of pressure off me and I can just train hard and play some rugby."
McCusker missed last season's Six Nations because he needed surgery on a troublesome shoulder injury.
And he is keen to make up for lost time.
"I had a phone call from Robin McBryde the night before the championship squad was to be announced, but I had to tell him I had been told I needed surgery on my shoulder," he added.
"I'm just glad to be injury-free now.
"I'm still a bit rusty to be honest. Seven months is quite a long time out of the game.
"It's been quite hard to get back into it in terms of where I'd like to be, but obviously I'm doing a little bit right to be thought of in this 35-man Wales squad.
"There's definitely a place there to target (with Dan's injury)," he added.
"I don't know what they are thinking. There are various options. But you've got to be in it to win it, as they say.
"So it's up for grabs as I see it."
"It's not too bad, to be honest. I didn't mind the ice chambers too much last time.
"It is a bit of a shock to the system the first couple of days. The intensity and training volume goes through the roof. But that's why we are going there.
"Spala is a good environment where we can all bond, get to know each other and put some hard work in.
"You saw how the guys did at the World Cup after a couple of trips there. It gives you a mental edge as well as a physical one."