DAVE RENNIE praised the positive energy Stuart Hogg brings to the Glasgow Warriors squad last week when naming the 25-year-old at full-back for Saturday’s European Champions Cup clash against Leinster – and the player did not let the coach down with an all-action display in his first outing after four months recovering from shoulder surgery.
And 30 minutes after the end of the game he was still doing his damned best to pump up morale – despite the crushing 18-34 home defeat his team had just suffered, which left them without so much as a losing bonus point from two matches so far in a devilishly difficult pool.
Hogg conceded that he was “bitterly disappointed” at the outcome, but refused to rule out his club’s chances of qualifying for the Champions Cup quarter-finals this year.
“We had our opportunities and grabbed a couple of them, but the rest of the time we just coughed up the ball too easily. Credit to Leinster, I thought they were outstanding in the way they managed the game – they put us under a lot of pressure. But we’ll learn from this – we have to bounce back. We’ve made it tough for ourselves but we’re not going to go down without a fight,” he said.
“We came out of the box flying and really put Leinster under pressure, but after that we eased off a bit and let them back into the game. They took their opportunities well.”
“These things happen, but we’ve got all the tools for success in our dressing room. We’ll get back on the horse and go again. Bath made it out of our pool a couple of years ago after losing their first two games. We need a lot to go our way, but we’ve got boys who are more than capable of qualifying. It’s all in our hands.”
“We’re two games in. We still have a chance of qualifying. We’re not going to go down without a fight.”
Rennie also reported before the match that Hogg had recently broken the club’s speed record and we got a glimpse of that pace after 12 minutes on Saturday when he goose-stepped past Robbie Henshaw to launch an attack up the right touch-line, which led to Finn Russell’s opening penalty.
And we saw that searing speed again a few minutes later when he raced on to Tommy Seymour’s hack ahead to grab the game’s opening try.
Then, in the second half, Hogg returned the favour by making the pass which sent Seymour in for the try which briefly raised home hopes of an unlikely comeback.
“I’m obviously delighted to be back but there’s still a hell of a lot to work on. I started off the game not too bad but there were a few mistakes that really cost us,” said Hogg, who clearly works hard to keep the buzz which surrounds his performances in check.
One error of the errors Hogg may have been alluding to highlighted just how much these European matches balance on a knife-edge, with a howitzer clearance downfield just after that try running too long on the artificial surface at Scotstoun and ending up bouncing over the dead-ball line – meaning play was brought all the way back for a Leinster scrum inside the Warriors 22. It was from that platform that Ciaran Healy managed to put his team back in front.
On another occasion, Hogg ended up a helpless bystander covering the wing when Noel Reid worked a scissors with Joey Carberry to cut open a Warriors midfield cluttered with front five forwards to score Leinster’s bonus point securing fourth try in the 75th minute.
But it would be way off the mark to suggest that the rustiness Hogg detected in his own performance was a central issue for Warriors in this match. Their inability to cope with Leinster’s pack power is the unavoidable gorilla in the corner, just as it was in last week’s loss to Exeter Chiefs. The big problem now facing the team is that their set-piece and maul is destined to be targeted mercilessly until they are able to persuade opponents that they can fight fire with fire.
The Warriors are missing some big hitters from their front five, such as recently recruited South African prop Oli Kebble, Scotland hooker Fraser Brown and New Zealand second-row Brian Alainu’uese – who are all injured. Meanwhile Tongan tighthead Siua Halanukonuka will arrive once his season with the Highlanders in New Zealand finishes.
In the meantime, they must battle on with what they’ve got. Jamie Bhatti (aged 24) has taken to pro rugby exceptionally well, but is being asked to take on an awful lot on his first season at this level. Similarly, hooker George Turner (aged 25) as been around the pro environment for four years, but was given very little game exposure by Edinburgh during that period with only one start and 13 appearances off the bench. It says a lot that Zander Fagerson is the most experienced of Saturday’s starting front-row, with 57 appearances in four years with the Warriors, and 12 Scotland caps, at the grand old age of 21.
There is absolutely no doubt about the potential of these players, or about their willingness to embrace the challenge they now face, but the past few weeks have been a brutal demonstration of just how tough it is coping with the awesome power contained within the top packs of Europe.
Anyone who has watched Hogg run 50 yards to give his front-row a congratulatory pat on the backside after earning a scrum penalty will recognise that he has a keen appreciation of just how tough it is for those guys at the pit-face, and he recoils when asked if he is frustrated at the problems his team have been hamstrung by in recent weeks.
“Those boys have a job to do up front and the backs have got a job to do out wide. I think we didn’t tie both pieces together at times. It’s disappointing that we don’t take every chance that we got. We coughed up a few balls and our defence at times wasn’t squeaky clean. A couple of their tries were fairly soft,” he said, in a clear attempt to deflect the focus of the conversation.
“If you look at our front-row, I think they’re all 25 or under. They are young and fairly inexperienced. They’ll have to learn, but we’ve got the boys there to make sure we will be good. It’s a different challenge up front so I’m not going to comment as I’ve no idea what happens there,” he eventually elaborates.
“It all starts up there. If we can get a good platform to play off then we have backs that can do damage. Every back-line wants to play on the front foot and we did that at times and showed we were dangerous, but the majority of time that wasn’t the case.”
The Warriors will be disappointed by their last two results, but not completely disheartened. A weakness has been exposed and exploited, but they have not suddenly become a bad team. The arrival of the Southern Kings at Scotstoun this Friday night should be a golden opportunity to recapture some of their early season mojo.
The South African franchise have lost all their PRO14 games so far this season, conceding 31 tries against just seven scored, and not earning a single bonus point, so the Warriors should be looking for a comfortable victory as a demonstration that they might be down but they most certainly are not out.
Hogg’s brave words about making it out of their Champions Cup pool are understandable and commendable in terms of setting a tone for the team moving forward, but the reality is that they must now get used to the idea that they are not going to be relevant in Europe this year. It is now about playing the long game – which means continuing to dominate the PRO14 and making real headway in building a pack capable of going toe-to-toe against the likes of Leinster and Exeter Chiefs.