Potent twin threats give Scotland an exciting extra dimension

Hogg and Russell the most dangerous, X-factor backs Scottish rugby has produced in two decades

Scotland’s Stuart Hogg celebrates scoring a try against England at Murrayfield last month with Finn Russell. Photograph: Craig Watson/Inpho

Scotland’s Stuart Hogg celebrates scoring a try against England at Murrayfield last month with Finn Russell. Photograph: Craig Watson/Inpho

 

Back in 2008, Stuart Hogg was playing for the Scottish Under-17s against their English counterparts in Netherdale, home to Gala RFC. Borders territory and so Hogg territory.

Watching the game was Jim Renwick, the legendary little Scottish centre from the 1970s and 80s, who played alongside Hogg’s father John, also a fullback, in the Hawick team, aka the Green Machine, in the 70s and 80s. He had been watching Hogg play since he was a nipper and was something of a mentor to the young fullback.

“Stuart scored a great try that day,” recalls Renwick. “It was a halfway line job. He went outside one player and inside another one. He was almost getting a break in the Glasgow set-up and then after he scored that try his name was on everybody’s lips, and he just kept going up the next step from then on.

“To be fair he can handle the next step up, which is not always easy. Sometime it can be hard to go from club to district to international but he seems to handle the step quite well.”

From a talented rugby family – his brother Graham also played for the Scottish Under-17s, 18s and 20s side as well as their Sevens – destiny called him. Player of the Year on the Scottish Under-17s, and captain of the Under-18s, Hogg played in the Under-20s and signed his first pro contract with Glasgow at 18, and made his Scottish debut at 19.

By contrast, Finn Russell took a more circuitous route from Stirling County, via Falkirk in Scotland’s second division, and broke into Glasgow’s pro ranks and made his Scottish debut three years after Hogg.

Both are 28, have moved on to Exeter and Racing 92, and are the most dangerous, X-factor backs Scottish rugby has produced in 20 years. One Scottish journalist would go back further, to Andy Irvine and Renwick himself in the 70s.

After that Test debut at 19 as a replacement against Wales in Cardiff in the 2012 Six Nations, Hogg scored a try in the ninth minute of his first start against France at Murrayfield a fortnight later. In 2013, he was the youngest player on the Lions tour, at just 20.

By his own admission, things came a little too quickly for him, and he publicly apologised for letting down his team-mates and the Scottish supporters when sent off against Wales in Cardiff in 2014 for smashing his shoulder into Dan Biggar’s jaw.

That season Hogg was also linked with Munster when, believing Glasgow’s new contract wasn’t good enough, he tried to engineer a move away.

Bad press

“That was the first time I got bad press and I didn’t like it. I realised I had to grow up, and quick,” he subsequently admitted. “Dad gave me a good kick up the backside. I started working with [sports psychologist] Steve Black who was brilliant and along with Gregor [Townsend, then the Warriors coach] helped me get the best out of myself. The important thing is to learn from your mistakes. I believe I’m the player I am, and the person I am, because I have learned.”

Russell, meanwhile, left Wallace High School to do an apprenticeship as a stonemason, while his form at Falkirk saw him break into the Scottish Under-20s a year after Hogg.

Also drafted into Glasgow’s elite development programme, Russell helped Ayr to a Scottish domestic double in the 2012-13 season before, at the age of 20, he and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne received the John Macphail Scholarship, spending 15 weeks playing with Lincoln University, outside Christchurch.

After his Test debut at 19 as a replacement against Wales in Cardiff in the 2012 Six Nations, Stuart Hogg scored a try in the ninth minute of his fist start against France at Murrayfield a fortnight later. Photograph: Inpho/Getty Images
After his Test debut at 19 as a replacement against Wales in Cardiff in the 2012 Six Nations, Stuart Hogg scored a try in the ninth minute of his fist start against France at Murrayfield a fortnight later. Photograph: Inpho/Getty Images

His mentor was the former Munster centre Jason Holland, now the head coach of the Hurricanes, who helped Russell devise game plans for the first time.

“I was just back from Ireland that summer as well,” Holland recalled from Wellington this week. “He was like a Kiwi ‘10’, he would take the line on, he’d offload out of the back, he would have a real crack. It was a pleasure to spend time with him.

“He played with a Varsity team who were quite dominant and threw the ball around. He was off the cuff and ran from his own line. The boys in the university side loved him. He played like he had no fear, it was awesome. He wasn’t scared to make a tackle either. He was tough.

“He was real green and had to do a lot of learning, as he’s done over the last eight years, about game management, when to play deep and when to play flat, and when to kick.”

Holland saw a visible improvement over the 15 weeks.

“He changed his goalkicking when he was here. He used to come off about nine or ten steps and just whack everything. He put a little more detail into his goalkicking because he could nail them from 55 metres but he was a bit all over the show. They also had a pretty good time over here, footie aside,” Holland adds.

Holland has watched Russell’s game develop.

“His game understanding has grown massively, kicking at the right time but he still hasn’t lost that ability to produce those little moments of magic. Sometimes, with the stress of being a game manager, players lose their natural tendencies because they’re worried about how they have to run the game and what’s been drummed into them. The beauty about Finn is that he has leaned how to run the game but he hasn’t lost that natural ability to have a crack. That’s what I’ve always loved about him.”

First-choice

Russell’s breakthrough with Glasgow came during the 2014 Six Nations, when Ruaridh Jackson and Duncan Weir were on Scotland duty, allowing him to establish himself as the Warriors’ ‘10’.

Townsend harnessed the talents of Russell and Hogg at Glasgow where they were integral parts of the 2014-15 Pro12 success, notably in the semi-final against Ulster when Russell’s 30-metre pass put DTH van Der Merwe over in the corner before he nailed the touchline conversion for a 14-12 win. Russell then sealed the 31-13 win in the final over Munster at the Kingspan Stadium when slicing through for Glasgow’s fourth try.

Blooded by Vern Cotter on Scotland’s tour to the Americas in the summer of 2014, Russell also established himself as Scotland’s first-choice ‘10’ in the 2014-15 season.

He moved on to Racing in the summer of 2018, before Hogg joined Exeter a year later. Russell’s backs coach is another former Munsterman, Mike Prendergast.

Finn Russell: moved on to Racing from Glasgow in the summer of 2018. “He’s an incredible rugby player and an incredible talent,” says Racing backs coach Mike Prendergast. Photograph: Russell Cheyne/Inpho
Finn Russell: moved on to Racing from Glasgow in the summer of 2018. “He’s an incredible rugby player and an incredible talent,” says Racing backs coach Mike Prendergast. Photograph: Russell Cheyne/Inpho

“First of all, he’s an incredible rugby player and an incredible talent,” says Prendergast. “For me what separates him is his decision-making is just so late, and when you have players around him who are threats, he’s just so hard to defend.

“He’s added to his game in the last year or two, and that’s his short kicking game. Scouting oppositions and how they defend on the edges and what not, there’s no better player in world rugby at the moment to exploit that than Finn in my book.

“People look at him and think Finn is after rocking up for a game but he’s actually an incredibly professional guy. His video work is top notch, he has an incredibly good eye for the game and he is always well prepared.

“Himself and Zeebs [Simon Zebo] are always together and they make the environment a good place. He’s learned the language, knocks around with a lot of the young French guys and then he likes his own space. He’s a quietish fella behind it all but a top bloke and great fun to work with. He leads on the pitch. He doesn’t speak a huge amount but when he talks people listen.”

With his breaks, his show and goes, his tries, his wicked short-kicking game, his delayed passing, his offloading and his intercepts, no matter how subdued a team may have him, Russell has a highlights reel like no other.

‘That’ pass which floated over a stranded Jonathan Joseph into the on-rushing Huw Jones on his own 22 at Murrayfield against England in 2017, and finished with his lobbed try-scoring pass to Sean Maitland.

The nutmeg of Rory Scannell and try at Thomond Park.

The chip for Virimi Vakatawa before taking the return pass and putting Juan Imhoff over to beat Saracens in the semi-final. And many, many more.

There are the bloopers too.

Opting for a shot at a drop goal entering the last minute at Twickenham with an 11-6 lead, prompting Alan Quinlan to exclaim on commentary: “What in God’s name are they trying to do?” The intercept in the Heineken Cup final against Exeter which coughed up a try.

Likening it to ‘that’ pass at Twickenham, Prendergast counters: “If it [the intercept was another couple of inches higher we’re potentially scoring at the other end.”

“It was something that we’d identified before the game, that there would be that kick space after their kicking game. Finn opted for the pass rather than the kick and I’ll take responsibility for that as a coach also. But look, he had so many positives in that game as well.

Next action

“Finn was blessed with a talent and you never want to take that away from a player. Sometimes there’s going to be mistakes, but I’ve never seen a player move on so quickly. He just doesn’t let it bother him. He’s looking for the next action. That pass didn’t come off, but ten minutes later he was putting Zeebs away in the corner. That’s the type of player that he is.”

This perhaps conveys an impression that Russell doesn’t care as much as other players, which along with the risk-taking and the temerity to look like he enjoys playing, in turn polarises opinion about him, but Prendergast maintains: “He moves on very quickly, he doesn’t let it cloud him, and that’s a great strength to have.”

Russell was absent for both Irish games last year, the first after his bust-up with Townsend, when Hogg dropped the ball over the Irish line. But with 22 tries in 82 Tests, he needs only another three to overtake Ian Smith and Tony Stanger as Scotland’s leading try scorer of all time.

Stuart Hogg leaves the pitch after being sent off against Wales in 2014. “That was the first time I got bad press and I didn’t like it. I realised I had to grow up, and quick,” he subsequently admitted. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Stuart Hogg leaves the pitch after being sent off against Wales in 2014. “That was the first time I got bad press and I didn’t like it. I realised I had to grow up, and quick,” he subsequently admitted. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

There’s no doubt they represent a huge threat tomorrow, as they did when Hogg scored two tries in the win over Ireland four years ago.

“They’re good pals,” says Prendergast. “Finn speaks quite highly of Stuart. The thing about both of them, like Finn and Juan Imhoff, or Finn and Virimi Vakatawa or Finn and Zeebs, they get each other. Hogg reads off Finn quite well and that takes time, but when you have two threats that becomes a lot more difficult to defend, and they have that understanding. They get each other.”

Stuart Hogg

Age: 28
Place of birth: Melrose, Scotland
Height: 1.80 m (5 ft 11 in)
Weight: 93 kg (14 st 9 lb; 205 lb)
School: Hawick High School
Teams: Glasgow Warriors, Exeter Chiefs.
Test debut: v Wales at Millennium Stadium, Feb 12, 2012.
Test record: Played 82, 128 pts (22 tries, 5 pens, 1 drop goal).

Finn Russell

Age: 28
Place of birth: Bridge of Allan, Scotland
Height: 1.82 m (6 ft 0 in)
Weight: 87 kg (13 st 10 lb; 192 lb)
School: Wallace High School
Teams: Glasgow Warriors, Racing 92.
Test debut: v USA, Houston, 7 June, 2014.
Test record: Pl 53. 162 pts (6 tries, 36 cons, 20 pens).

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