Scotland aiming to go the whole Hogg as they look to move on from Japan

Gregor Townsend turns to Exeter fullback to lead side in wake of World Cup woes

 Scotland’s Stuart Hogg takes on Ireland’s Jordan Larmour during the Rugby World Cup 2019 Pool A game between Ireland and Scotland, at the Yokohama Stadium in Japan. Photograph:  Gary Hutchison/SNS Group via Getty Images

Scotland’s Stuart Hogg takes on Ireland’s Jordan Larmour during the Rugby World Cup 2019 Pool A game between Ireland and Scotland, at the Yokohama Stadium in Japan. Photograph: Gary Hutchison/SNS Group via Getty Images

 

Time moves on. Coaches, captains and squads change, all the more so in the fall-out from a World Cup cycle. No less than Ireland, Scotland are proof of that. On the back of retirements, there is a new captain, six uncapped players and several others brought back from the cold.

Then there was the Finn Russell affair, which resulted in him being ejected from the squad last Thursday and ruled out of next Saturday’s opening game against Ireland. To lose their primary playmaker of the last five years has to have been destabilising.

Against that, Adam Hastings is a more than competent outhalf, and it could be that, a la Saipan/Roy Keane, it could also help the Scottish squad pull together.

Furthermore, a sufficient core of the side, along with supporters and pundits, will have the Scots in vengeful mode when they take to the Aviva Stadium next Saturday for their opening 2020 Guinness Six Nations match.

Gregor Townsend, cerebral as ever, maintains they will not be motivated by anger.

“I don’t think so. I think the anger came out in our next game against Samoa and that showed a true picture of who we are and how we can play. Our players have played a lot of rugby since that Ireland game, a few games in the World Cup and a lot of games for their clubs, and the Six Nations is a different tournament.

“The challenge of playing Ireland in Dublin with their great home record, the opportunity is a huge one, and that’s what we’ll be focussing on – and focussing on the rugby that we want to be playing throughout the tournament, and you’ve only got a short period of time to get that in place for the first game.”

Townsend, along with Eddie Jones, is the only Six Nations head coach still in situ from a year ago and the promotion of Andy Farrell could give Ireland an element of surprise in his first game since succeeding Joe Schmidt.

“The first game of a tournament, teams usually bring something new anyway,” said Townsend.” They’ve had three months after November to work on things. With Ireland, it is a change of attack potentially, but we don’t know. I think their defence will be similar – a lot of defences are similar anyway – and Andy was the defence coach for a number of years, so we’ll wait and see.

“It is about adapting to what oppositions are doing, whether they are strong in areas you didn’t think they would be, or weaker in others. But I think that first game is also about what you do. You’ve got two weeks of preparation, and within that two weeks there’s five or six training sessions, so it is important that you focus on yourselves and get your game in place – defence, set-piece, attack and game-management – and then the players on the field will adapt to what’s working and what needs to improve.”

For his part, Farrell also reckoned: “History tells us that Gregor always have something up his sleeve himself, so we’ll be expecting the unexpected from Scotland as well.”

Experienced player

Townsend also makes the point that Farrell and Fabien Galthie have coached at international level, and nor are Franco Smith and Wayne Pivac exactly greenhorns.

While Townsend is still in situ, there’s also a new Scottish captain, Stuart Hogg. A game-breaking full-back wouldn’t appear the most obvious choice, but of the last three Scottish captains, Greig Laidlaw and John Barclay have retired from Test rugby, while Stuart McInally admitted the job became too much for him at the World Cup.

Although only 27, the jet-heeled Hogg is the most experienced player in Scotland’s squad with 72 caps. Certainly it will be interesting to see how Hogg leads the team. Fullback is a tad far removed from the action, as well as the referee, but then again Gavin Hastings didn’t work out too badly.

That said, Hogg has had a tendency to impetuously chase matches when his teams go behind. In his last game for Glasgow, the Pro14 final against Leinster in Celtic Park, the overbearing desire to sign off on a triumphant note perhaps contributed to him forcing things too early.

However Townsend is a shrewd man and will have seen the growth in Hogg, as a person as well as a player, and his move to Exeter can be seen as another sign of his development.

“I remember at Glasgow the first time Stuart was in a leadership group he maybe wasn’t so keen to be part of it,” Townsend revealed. “He has grown into the leadership role, whether that’s a tactical one, what it means to play for your country, what to do in the training week.”

“I thought Stuart was outstanding in our World Cup camp with the energy he brought every day and how that inspired others around him and how he connected with others. He has knowledge of the game and he is our most experienced player. Those factors were all huge positives.

“I still thought after the World Cup that it was something he might not want to do. To know that he wanted to do it was step one; step two was talking about it and finding out how he would approach the captaincy and how he would bring the best out of other leaders and other players in the team.

“Most important was that being captain wouldn’t affect how he played. Stuart has played very well for Scotland in the past and has been in great form for Exeter. Those things matched up really well.”

Johnny Sexton said he saw a massive change in Hogg between the player who went on the Lions tour to Australia in 2013 compared to the tour four years later in New Zealand, so much so that it was almost like encountering a different person.

Leadership role

Hogg himself effectively admitted as much when asked why he wasn’t initially keen on assuming a leadership role at Glasgow when confessing: “From a selfish point of view I just wanted to concentrate on getting the best out of myself.

“I felt that with that bit of added pressure I might crumble under it. But Gregor believed in me back then. He put me in the leadership group and ever since then I’ve really enjoyed being involved, having a say in what happens in terms of training and how we play, and also trying to get the best out of everyone else.

“I’m very passionate about playing rugby and very passionate about playing for Scotland. I want to get the best from myself and the best out of others. I want to be in a position to win every single game I’m involved in.”

It could also inspire him and Hogg, lest we forget, was the Player of the Tournament in both the 2016 and 2017 Six Nations, and by rights should only be hitting the peak of his powers in his late 20s.

And with both that Pro14 final and the World Cup pool opener in mind, he’ll undoubtedly be as motivated as anybody at the Aviva Stadium next Saturday.

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