Stuart Hogg’s fancy footwork brings him into the line for his Lions debut

Distantly related to George Best, the Scottish fullback has had a rapid rise

Stuart Hogg is tackled by Manu Tuilagi during Lions training. The Scottish fullback is enjoying life on tour so far.  Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Stuart Hogg is tackled by Manu Tuilagi during Lions training. The Scottish fullback is enjoying life on tour so far. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 


Thanks to Dean Richards, Geordan Murphy was forever saddled with the term ‘”he George Best of rugby”, but if there is a natural successor to that throne it is assuredly another multi-skilled fullback in the shape of Stuart Hogg. And in fact Hogg has distant familial links with the aforementioned Best.

Hogg’s father John, who played with Hawick before becoming a referee, lost both his parents when he was young and it is one of the more poignant aspects of Hogg’s rugby career, that his Scotland debut away to Wales in the 2012 Six Nations ensured the familial links were first uncovered.

“My dad has always wanted to find out his family history. And 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. And to meet all the Irish relatives was pretty amazing and we get on now like we’ve always known each other. If I didn’t get capped, this might never have come out.”


Football ing prowess
While Hogg senior hailed from Scotland, it turned out his mother’s grandmother was related to the Bests. “That’s pretty cool” according to Hogg, who was thereafter more inclined to check clips of the great man on YouTube. “And he was some character by the sound of things.” As to his own footballing prowess, a self-deprecating Hogg smiles: “A touch like a baby elephant – terrible.”

Hogg’s brother Graham has also represented Scotland at under-18s, 19s and 20s as well as in the IRB Sevens Series, and it is a measure of Hogg’s rapid rise since that debut less than 16 months ago that he has already accumulated 15 caps and at 20, is the youngest player in the Lions’ squad.

“It’s quite surreal when you’re putting on Lions T-shirts, looking at the badge and you’re thinking, ‘I’m not here as a supporter; I’m here as a player’. I find myself very fortunate to be here as a player. I’m enjoying it. It’s great to meet everybody and I’m looking forward to learning a lot on the tour.”

Uppermost in that category are Leigh Halfpenny and Rob Kearney, his rivals and, he concedes, better bets to make the Test side, which in turn means Hogg has “nothing to lose”. As for having Paul O’Connell as his first Lions captain, Hogg says: “It means everything. I grew up watching the likes of Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell, and to have an opportunity to play with them is a pretty surreal feeling.”

“When you’ve got experienced boys like that all they can do is help everybody, and it’s a testimony to the boys’ characters that they’re always looking to helping everybody and the motivating factors, and they’re great to have alongside.”


Acerbic contributions
Like so many in this squad, even though he was only four years old at the time, the 1997 tour is a reference point for Hogg primarily through the celebrated Living with the Lions DVD, all the more so given the acerbic contributions of his compatriot Jim Telfer. “I could quote Jim Telfer for days! That’s my earliest memory.”

“This is your f**king Everest boys,” springs to mind, of course. “There’s many a one but probably my favourite one is when they’re doing a scrumming session and he tells Tom Smith to ‘get up and away you go’. It’s a quote which me and my pals normally use. I liked it.”

As for his Lions debut, Hogg is hoping for the kind of typically open confrontation one normally associates with a Barbarians game, even if he admits that could be “pretty sweaty” – an early contender for understatement of the tour.

“I’m finding it pretty tough,” admitted the freckled face Hogg. “Being a Scotsman and used to the rain all the time it’s pretty tough coming out here. But I’m enjoying it. I have plenty of sunscreen.”

Drinks breaks
Even in the one-hour training session of Wednesday, players were regularly taking drinks breaks. “It’s massively important to take on water when you’re out here. Every stoppage we’ve got the strength and conditioners and the nutritionists on with the water, so it’s much appreciated.”

The only comparable conditions he has experienced were in northern Italy for the 2011 IRB World Championships, and nor does that invoke happy memories. “From a personal point of view it was a bit of a nightmare,” he said, his voice lowering at what remains, clearly, a profoundly unhappy memory for someone who is evidently innately good-humoured and easy-going. “The first game when we played South Africa I got yellow-carded and I ended up getting cited after that. I got banned for two games which wasn’t ideal. It was a massive learning curve and I think that’s what made me the player I am today.”

He was cited for a spear tackle, “which was pretty stupid”. It remains the only citing of his career “and I’m hoping it’s going to be the last one. I’m not a dirty player at all and I just concentrate on my own game.”

When you’re related to George Best, however distantly, why wouldn’t you?