After touring as a youngster in 2013 and having his 2017 trip curtailed by injury, the Scotland captain is hoping this is third time lucky. By Tom English
Stuart Hogg bidding to be Test Lion
Gill knows the signs only too well, she knows the body language and how to interpret it even without knowing how her husband has played and whether his team have won or lost. One look at his face as he walks through the door and she gets it.
He’s not a lot of fun to be around when he’s performed poorly – and that’s by his own admission. He needs to sit quietly and stew for a while. “That’s just me,” says Stuart Hogg, “and I don’t think I’m going to change now, to be honest.”
Exeter Chiefs’ European Champions Cup quarter-final defeat by Leinster would have been one of those days. In a recent spell that has brought massive success at his club and enormous progress as captain of his country, that was a bad one.
Hogg talks about it as if getting it all out there is a cathartic experience. To say he beat himself up over the way he played – Exeter lost 34-22 – is putting it mildly. “I was crap,” he says. “There’s no point in saying otherwise.”
He blamed himself for at least two of Leinster’s tries. “Defensively I was shocking. Shocking. I couldn’t wait until the following week to play again, not to make amends because I couldn’t because we were out, but to give myself a bit of confidence. We were reigning champions and got knocked out in the quarter-final and I was at fault for some of it and I can’t hide away from that.”
Afterwards, was he thinking what damage the loss might have done to his British & Irish Lions 2021 prospects? “I was, 100%. I wanted to make the squad so badly that I was genuinely worried.
“That was a game I felt I needed to perform in, but Hugo Keenan (the Leinster full-back) outplayed me. He was everywhere, doing loads of good things and meanwhile I was playing like an absolute clown.
“I’m a nightmare to be around after games like that. There are times I walk in the house after a game and Gill looks at me and I just shake my head and she gives me a hug and then leaves me alone until I come out of it. That was a moment to refocus. It was the kick up the backside I obviously needed.”
So that Lions squad announcement day was tense. Ask him who he was most pleased for, apart from himself, and he mentions his Exeter mates and the Scottish eight, but mostly he talks about Sam Simmonds. He was utterly thrilled for him.
“Dickie (Luke Cowan-Dickie) has been one of the best hookers in world rugby, not to mind British or Irish rugby, for the last three years and Jonny Hill’s story has been incredible. A year ago he was sitting with ambitions to play for England. A year on, he’s won a league and European Cup double, he’s played for England and now he’s a Lion. That’s amazing.
“But Sam’s story is just fantastic. How he’s not been playing for England for the last number of years is beyond me. I was really chuffed for him.
“He was lost for words after the announcement. He’s a quiet bloke at the best of times, the type that just gets on with it. He’s never complained about not getting a look-in with England. Never, ever felt sorry for himself. He’s not bitter, he just drives on. And he’s quality.
“Everybody sees the line breaks and the tries but he does a s***-load of donkey work as well. When we played Bristol I watched him make a tackle, then he got up and made another tackle, then he got up and disrupted the breakdown, then another tackle. I was like, ‘Fair play, Simmo. Fair play’.
“He’s a great defender. He doesn’t just hang about in the back-line stealing our tries, he does the hard stuff. People who don’t watch the Premiership are going to watch him on the Lions tour and they’re going to say, ‘Where the hell has this bloke come from?’ He’s on the world stage now. I’m so excited for him.”
As stories go, Hogg’s yarn is an interesting one. Asked if he feels he has unfinished business with the Lions after touring in 2013 as a kid and having his 2017 tour ended by injury, and he says that’s the exact expression he used when talking to his dad. That trip to New Zealand and some of the things that followed on after it hurt him more than any of us could have known.
“In 2017 I was playing some of the best rugby I ever played. I’d actually been playing with a shoulder injury for six or seven months because I didn’t want to take time out to heal it. I managed it fine. The way the tour ended killed me, it absolutely killed me. (He fractured his cheekbone after colliding with Conor Murray in the win against Crusaders.)
“I thought if ever there was a time for me to play in a Test then that was it and it took me a while to get over it. I had my shoulder reconstructed afterwards and was out for four months, then I ripped a muscle in my gut, the muscle that goes from your back to your pelvis, and it pretty much felt like somebody had stabbed me.
“Out again. I came back and popped my shoulder. I couldn’t get a run of games. In two years I played 19 games for Glasgow. It was just s***.”
These were pretty bleak times for Hogg. Injuries, a lack of confidence, a self-destructive social media habit. None of it was good. He said that the first thing he’d do after games was switch on his phone and search his name on Twitter to see what people had been saying about him. It wrecked his head. Eventually, he stopped – and he felt liberated in an instant.
“I was listening to all these external voices and trying to prove them wrong, I was trying too hard on the field, I was too focused on things, too uptight and it got worse and worse and the love of the game was gone. It was really difficult. I couldn’t get going. I was thinking about not playing again, for sure. I’d had enough. Every time I’d come back, I’d get injured. I was miserable.”
Then the Rugby World Cup happened. What a shocker that was. A desperate performance against Ireland at the beginning and an exit to Japan at the end. Home early with so many doubts in his head about whether he was ever going to be the player he once was.
The one thing he hung onto was the fact that he was moving club. Nothing against Glasgow – he loves the place and will always be grateful to them for making him the player he is – but he needed to get away, needed a new challenge to kick-start his career. Exeter gave him the opportunity to “freshen up” as he puts it.
“If I’d gone back to Glasgow it would have been difficult. I came down and it felt like I had to start from scratch again – and that was good. I needed to justify my position. Then I had a huge amount of confidence injected into me when Gregor (Townsend) gave me the captaincy. Lockdown helped as well. It did me the world of good. Gave my body a rest and I was hungry for it when rugby resumed.”
As captain of Scotland he’s won six out of ten Six Nations games, a strike rate any Scottish captain of the past 30 years would have been delighted with. The wins in Wales, England and France made history. In 2020 and 2021, Scotland didn’t half exorcise some demons.
And yet, amid the tumult of winning at Twickenham and in Paris, there will always be a pang of what might have been. Three wins could have been four. They were close to winning all five.
“We’re actually kicking ourselves. We lost to Wales by one point and lost to Ireland by three. The Wales one was the real sickener because we gave it away. At one point, we go from attacking in their 22 to defending – penalty, penalty, penalty, penalty advantage, Wales try.
“That happened to us in the autumn against France as well. What have we learnt? Then in the second half against Wales it happens again. We’re under their sticks and we go penalty, penalty, penalty, penalty advantage, Wales try. So that’s 14 points in a game we lose by one.
“We needed to learn and we did that against France and it was a brilliant way to end the season. I think we’ve grown up a lot. Finn (Russell) and Ali (Price) were outstanding, not just that night but all season. The way they drove us round the field, the way they led on and off the field, the responsibility they took. Just class.
“We’re building nicely. Stopping France from lifting the trophy was great because we’ve had plenty of trophies lifted in front of us and it’s not very nice.”
Hogg’s critics – none harder on him than he is on himself, it has to be said – point to a weakness in the air and in his defence, but he knows what he’s about and doesn’t need to listen to anybody bar his coaches and his team-mates.
“I’ve been told by pundits or whoever that I can’t defend, I’ve been told that I can’t catch a high ball. I wouldn’t be going on a Lions tour if I couldn’t do it. I’ve had that forever.
“But that’s the world we live in. People would rather concentrate on the negative than the positive. Am I the best under the high ball? Definitely not. Am I the best defender? Definitely not. Does it bother me? Absolutely, but it’s something I work on and I do it on a daily basis.
“The last four years have been a battle to get back to where I want to be and now I’m happy. I just want to be myself. I just want to put myself in the conversation to be starting full-back in the Tests. I’m going to work incredibly hard to get there.
“In 2013, I was a child and I was behind Leigh Halfpenny, who was Man of the Series. In 2017, I was in a good place and it was heartbreaking.”
The 2021 tour has had its frustrations too. Having led the Lions against the, er, Sigma Lions in their first game on South African soil, he then had to isolate after a positive Covid test in camp and was forced to wait until the final warm-up game against the Stormers to make an impression ahead of the series against the Springboks.
He turned 29 in late June and knows this might be it, the last chance to be a Test Lion. “That’s the way I’m looking at it. I’m so up for it. Of course there’s a mental challenge we’re all going to have to go through. Because of Covid this won’t be a normal Lions tour and the restrictions on movement will be hard psychologically. We’ll be tested in all sorts of ways.
“And for those of us with kids it’ll be harder again. I was away for seven weeks during the Six Nations, then came home and on the Monday I picked up my kit bag to go to Exeter and my daughter said, ‘Daddy, how long are you away for this time?’ That’s when it becomes really tough, but you just tell yourself that you’re doing it for them.
“Everything is for the family. I just want to make them proud.”
This article originally appeared in Rugby World’s July 2021 edition.
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