Speed, skill – and that all-important X-factor

With Irish roots and a newly discovered George Best link, Scottish speedster Stuart Hogg merits close attention

 

In Hawick they say that if you catch Stuart Hogg you get to make a wish, a homily to the jagged sidesteps, jarring acceleration and the gentle pitter-patter of his gait as he glides over the surface. There is a temptation to describe the 22-year-old Scottish fullback as a will-o’-the-wisp but there is meat on the bone.

Standing just under six feet his compact frame may only weigh-in officially at a tad over 13 stone but those who have felt the solidity of his tackling or tried to ground him at high velocity will attest to his strength.

England centre Jonathan Joseph is probably the only other back in this Six Nations Championship who has quickened a pulse or two with his attacking derring-do. The Englishman has scored four tries to Hogg’s one, but it is the Scot whose general numbers are market leaders in the tournament, notably the 369 metres for which he’s carried possession.

As a minor aside, fullbacks, by the very nature of the position, get to rack up some cheap yards as a result of poorly directed punting, which affords them space and time to run back, but that’s not to denigrate Hogg’s contribution to his team.

It is possible to discern the more rounded and effective patterns that Vern Cotter, has fostered in his first season as Scotland coach and central to his stewardship has been the way he’s encouraged the team to attack with ball in hand by inclination as much as white-board theory.

Scotland captain and scrumhalf, Greig Laidlaw and young outhalf Finn Russell, have been trying to bring the best out of a talented backline, the luckless and now injured Alan Dunbar, the excellent Mark Bennett, one time Ulster wing and clever poacher Tommy Seymour and Hogg, a jewel that has glistened in the tournament.

Everyone loves a footballer, the player whose dexterity, vision and physical attributes possess an ethereal quality that elevates them beyond the mainstream. Other rugby players see that in the Scot; Brian O’Driscoll for one. There are also a handful of the current Ireland side, once Hogg’s team-mates on the 2013 Lions tour to Australia, who also champion him as a player.

The descriptive term common to each interviewee when asked to talk about Hogg is X-Factor. His Ireland counterpart Rob Kearney is on the record as saying: “He’s their most dangerous player without a doubt. He does have the X-Factor and he’s a guy they look to bring into the game a huge amount.”

Ireland scrumhalf Conor Murray ventured: “He certainly does have a little bit of an X-Factor, particularly on counter attack he’s not afraid to run it back, a real evasive type player: loads of gas.” Even Lions backs’ coach Rob Howley, who fulfils the same role with Wales, said during that tour to Australia that “he has huge X-Factor about him.”

Ireland’s defence coach Les Kiss is a fan. “We know he’s a very dangerous player, particularly when he changes the direction of the game or if you kick loosely to him, because his counter-attack is lethal. The one smart thing they do have, Hogg can also kick the ball long. So if you over-commit on kick chase and they suddenly kick at you, you’re under pressure.”

Hogg hasn’t changed appreciably in style from the time he won his first cap against Wales in the Millennium stadium in 2012 on foot of some outstanding performances for Glasgow Warriors, having previously represented Scotland at several age-grade levels.

His performances at fullback for Scotland earned him a place in Warren Gatland’s Lions squad to tour Australia (2013) where he demonstrated his versatility by filling in at outhalf in two matches while also playing outside centre and fullback. He didn’t make the three Tests as Wales fullback Leigh Halfpenny ended up as man of the series.

In five matches on tour, Hogg scored 23 points, including a try but another highlight was getting to play with his favourite player, Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll. The Scot enthused: “That was pretty unbelievable because he was my hero growing up. I remember that try he scored for the Lions (against Australia) in 2001.

“He is someone to look up to for his attitude on and off the field. He was down to earth and I have a lot of respect for that. To have the chance to train and play with him (was) a dream come true. It (was) quite surreal at times.” They share some qualities, taken from different points in the timeline; the exuberance and instinct to not die wondering.

At one point during that tour Gatland had to take Hogg aside and get him to calm down in training after the fullback perforated an eardrum. No one would question his attitude, dedication, work-rate and willingness to learn, qualities to complement his natural ability.

On a tangential Irish note, he discovered on the week of his senior debut for Scotland, that he was a distant relation to the late, former Manchester United and Northern Ireland soccer icon, George Best. Hogg explained: “It all came from when I got capped in Wales. My dad’s parents both died when they were relatively young and he’s always wanted to find out his family history.

“When I got capped the Irish relatives got in touch with my dad and my dad was in tears when he was on the phone just to find out all this history. To meet all the Irish relatives was pretty amazing and we get on now like we’ve always known each other.

“It’s amazing that things have come out of that due to rugby. If I didn’t get capped this might never have come out. My dad has always wanted to find out and to find out in the manner that he did was pretty amazing. My dad’s Scottish but my granny was Irish and she’s of the Best side. It’s a pretty amazing feeling to find out you’re related in some way even if it’s distant. It’s pretty cool.”

Hogg’s career has encountered one or two speed bumps, notably being sent off against Wales in last season’s Six Nations for a shoulder charge that caught Dan Biggar on the temple. He initially received a yellow card but French referee Jerome Garces having seen a re-run of the incident on the stadium screen called him back onto the pitch and brandished a red.

He also missed out on Glasgow’s run to the Pro12 final last May, dropped for the semi-final win over Munster and the final defeat to Leinster. At that time he was heavily linked with a move to Ulster and although flatly denied by Warriors’ coach Gregor Townsend, media speculation suggested it was because he was willing to listen to other offers. He penned a new-two year deal to remain in Glasgow last November.

He appears strong of character, not afraid to speak his mind as he did in the aftermath of Scotland’s agonising 23-20 defeat to Wales when referee Glen Jackson called time with four seconds left on the clock and had also failed to review a disallowed Scottish try but also in calling out England for what he perceived as a lack of respect for Scottish rugby.

“The English are a fantastic team but they’re pretty much all about themselves at times. They don’t really respect us and we find that pretty frustrating. There will be a certain number of people that do respect us but, no matter how good our performance is, on the whole they don’t.”

He’ll understand they’ll start taking Scotland more seriously when the latter start to win and that’s exactly what the home side crave this afternoon. If there to manage that then Hogg will be a focal point marauding across the Murrayfield turf looking for nervous forwards to turn inside out or perhaps snaffling an intercept at which he’s very adept.

Whatever his contribution it’ll be worth watching.

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