NOT only is Stuart Hogg back, he is leaner than before, faster than ever, and cannot wait to return to action. That is the good news for Glasgow Warriors – and, they hope, the bad news for Leinster – as they prepare for this afternoon’s Champions Cup clash at Scotstoun.
The Scotland full-back, who has not played since the Lions tour and had shoulder surgery in the summer, had hoped to return to action in last week’s Pool 3 opener against Exeter. Warriors head coach Dave Rennie decided it would be best to wait another week, however, and is now completely convinced that Hogg is making his comeback at exactly the right time.
“It’s fantastic to have him back,” Rennie said after announcing that Hogg would start in the No 15 jersey, with Ruaridh Jackson on the bench. “Hoggy is very infectious, a ball of energy, and he’s great for the group. He was pretty determined to be in the mix last week, but we just wanted to make sure his introduction was right. He’s got a lot of training time with us now and done a lot of contact work, so he’s confident.
“We thought of starting Ruaridh Jackson again and bringing Hoggy off the bench, but Ruaridh has played eight games of 80 minutes and he deserves a bit of a breather, so we’ve brought Hoggy straight in to start. He’s comfortable with that and so are we.
“He’s got himself into the best nick of his life. He’s broken the club record in regard to speed. He’s dropped a lot of weight, so he’s a lot leaner. He has a massive kicking game, he’s electric on the field, and he’s really demanding. He’ll put pressure on other guys and challenge them to perform well. He’s gold to have back in. His energy has been really infectious around the group.”
Hogg has always been a fast and evasive runner, but shedding a few kilos over the summer has helped him speed up even more – hence that club record. “It’s straight-out speed,” Rennie explained. “On Thursday he ran 36.8 km/h. That’s the top speed he hit, which is massive, just over 10 metres per second. He’s in good nick.
“We’ve been able to really personalise his return to play, and a lot of that is about getting him more powerful and explosive and leaner and faster. Hoggy has always been quick; he’s just quicker than he’s ever been now.
“It’s great to have him. He’s very excited. No doubt he’ll be a bit rusty in some areas, but he’s a quality player and we expect him to come out and perform well.”
For context, Usain Bolt at the peak of his powers clocked 44.7km/h in 2009, but that was only during a small section of the 100-metres final at that year’s IAAF World Championships. His average speed over the whole race – which he won, funnily enough – was just under 37.6km/h.
Of course, for Hogg to make best use of his speed, his team-mates up front will have to win clean ball, something they were unable to do at vital times against the Chiefs, who beat them 24-15 largely thanks to the dominance of their forwards. With Cian Healy back at loosehead prop, Leinster clearly hope to exploit a perceived flaw in the Warriors pack, but Rennie does not think there is any inherent weakness in his front row.
“I think it has been the consistency of our scrum that has been the issue for us. We’ve scrummed very well on our own ball and been penalised on opposition ball. Our first scrum against Exeter we were quite dominant, but then we got put under pressure, so that’s a consistency [issue].
“We’ve got a young front row, they’re learning quickly, training really well. It’s an important part of the game tomorrow, so they’ve really steeled themselves up for it.”
Jamie Bhatti and Zander Fagerson continue at prop, while George Turner returns at hooker in place of the injured Fraser Brown. Behind the pack, Leonardo Sarto is on the wing and Sam Johnson is at centre, replacing Lee Jones and Nick Grigg respectively.
“Leo’s performance against Munster was phenomenal, so we’re keen to get him out there and ask some questions of Leinster’s defence,” Rennie said of the Italian. “He did his ankle against Munster, we left him out against Treviso, then he played against the Cheetahs. We’ve got real competition for places out there. Rory Hughes has gone for the season, but Lelia Masaga is returning from injury and we hope to have him back next.”
Brown and Hughes are far from the only players on the injury list, but this Warriors starting line-up has a settled look to it, and is close to being the best that Rennie could choose. They will need to be at their best today to defeat opponents who won their opening match against Montpellier and will know that if they return to Ireland with four or five points they will have all but knocked Glasgow out of the running for a quarter-final place.
“Our boys are well aware of the importance of this game,” Rennie added. “But we’re not focusing on the end result: we’ve got to get a good performance on the park and do enough to keep the scoreboard ticking over.
“We can take a lot of confidence from what we’ve done in the past seven weeks. We just know it’s going to be brutal. Leinster have got a very strong ability to put you in the corner – 16 of their 22 tries have come from starting inside the opposition 22, so territory is a big part of their game.”
The territory that counts most today, however, could be Scotstoun itself. The Warriors never looked completely at ease down at Sandy Park, but on home turf they should be able to produce a result that would throw the group back into the melting pot.
Glasgow Warriors (v Leinster at Scotstoun, Saturday 21 October, 1pm): S Hogg; T Seymour, S Johnson, P Horne, L Sarto; F Russell, A Price; J Bhatti, G Turner, Z Fagerson, T Swinson, J Gray, R Wilson, C Gibbins, A Ashe. Substitutes: P MacArthur, A Allan, D Rae, S Cummings, R Harley, H Pyrgos, N Grigg, L Jones.
Leinster: J Carbery; F McFadden, R Henshaw, N Reid, B Daly; J Sexton, L McGrath; C Healy, S Cronin, T Furlong, D Toner, S Fardy, R Ruddock, J van der Flier, J Conan. Substitutes: J Tracy, J McGrath, M Bent, J Ryan, D Leavy, J Gibson-Park, R Byrne, D Kearney.