By Stuart Bathgate
THERE was a time when picking Stuart Hogg as Scotland captain would have been seen as something fairly close to folly. Not that his talent was ever in doubt – since making his debut in 2012, the Hawick man has been one of the most potent forces in the national side, boasting a counter-attacking thrust which few players in world rugby can equal. But the inconsistency of his decision-making, and sometimes the unreliability of his temperament too, have made it appear inadvisable to give the full-back such a crucial leadership role.
Now, however, Gregor Townsend is confident that the 25-year-old is ready to take charge of the team against the United States on Saturday, having seen Hogg mature both and off the field. And there are few people better placed to assess the player than the head coach himself, given their similar backgrounds and styles of play, and how closely they have worked together since Townsend first became head coach at Glasgow.
“I think he’s developed as a leader,” the head coach said. “He’s obviously one of our most experienced players. I discussed the potential of being a captain in one of these games on tour a few weeks ago and he was really excited about it, and he’s led well so far. It’s great having him available to be on tour, and to lead is even better.
“We all have challenges, especially what he achieved at such a young age – playing for his country at 19 years old, playing for the Lions at 20, 21, playing outstanding rugby.
“He did have some challenges that year,” Townsend continued, referring to 2014, when Hogg came close to leaving the Warriors for Ulster, was omitted from two big PRO12 games, and also got sent off for Scotland in a heavy defeat by Wales. “There was a real worry that he might go, he might leave Glasgow, and him and I might not have a relationship if that was to happen. I felt at the time that we had real potential to have a good relationship, because we’re both from the Borders and both came through in the Scotland team at a very young age, but everybody’s different.
“I was worried he would leave Glasgow and leave on a bad note for everyone involved. I know the decision at that time not to play him in the semi-final and final would have hurt him, definitely. They were not easy decisions, but we felt they were the right ones at the time and nobody is more happy than me at the way he has responded.
“He played Commonwealth Games [Sevens at Glasgow 2014] and we were keen to get him involved in that and then he came back and the first day of pre-season the slate was clean and he trained really hard and had a great season for club and country. I think he apologised straight away that week. His actions showed how much he had learned and how much he wanted to make the most of being a rugby player.
“The end of that season he was outstanding in the PRO12 final on the back of a great Six Nations. Sometimes they don’t work out like that, but a lot is down to Hoggy and the fact that he went away that summer, reflected and went ‘Right, I’m going to make the most of my time as as rugby player’.
“He got through that difficult season, and the next two seasons he was voted Six Nations player of the tournament two seasons in a row and became a Lion for the second time. We all grow up and mature. He’s also had some great life experiences – getting married and having kids – and that changes you too. He cares a lot about the team, which is great, and that’s another reason why he’s captain. He loves playing for Scotland, he loves the history of Scotland – the players that used to play, and the songs, he loves all that aspect, he loves touring.
“So he’s a real asset for us on the field but also off the field. We now take for granted that what he does on the ball is the right decision more often than not – a lot more often than not. And that could be him running, could be putting a great kick in, or just putting a bit of pace on to attract two defenders to put someone else in. The kick for Tommy Seymour in the All Black game – that’s world-class decision-making and execution, going at whatever speed he was going at. He’s built a lot of those little things into his game as well as having that outstanding running ability.”
New caps ready for USA
Just as he is confident in Hogg’s ability to lead, so Townsend is as certain as he can be that the two new caps, George Horne and Matt Fagerson, will rise to the occasion. He expects the USA to be more formidable opponents than Canada, but believes that, with some experienced players to call on from the bench, this is a well-balanced Scotland squad that can build on the first outing in Edmonton.
“This is a tougher game; we’re all aware of that. The USA have some great individuals and confidence from six wins in a row behind them. The challenge for our players is to grab their opportunities on their first caps, but also in the knowledge they have to play well against a very good team.
“They have earned it. It [Scotland] is an exciting team. These are players in form – guys like George and Adam Hastings, who came off the bench against Canada. Lewis Carmichael had a really good impact off the bench.
“Around them there is a bit of experience, and experience from then bench too, that we will be using, hopefully to build on the really good work the players have done. It it is a tight game we know the likes of Fraser Brown, Grant Gilchrist, Dave Denton, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Mark Bennett are all experienced players who can come on and know the right way to win a game.”