FRIDAY night will be Stuart Hogg’s final appearance at Scotstoun as a Glasgow Warriors player, and the Exeter Chiefs bound full-back is determined to make the most of the occasion, in order to ensure that it is not his last appearance for the club, full-stop.
A victory over Ulster in the eagerly anticipated Guinness PRO14 play-off semi-final will book a Grand Final appointment across the city at Celtic Park on 25th May against either Leinster or Munster, with the chance for the club to claim a second league title after first lifting the trophy in 2015.
A defeat, however, would bring the curtain down on the season with immediate effect, meaning the talismanic 26-year-old’s nine-year stint at the club ends on a desperately flat note. It is a prospect which is too awful for Hogg to properly contemplate – he knows he has to keep a lid on the emotional significance of the occasion in order to focus on getting the job done.
“Hopefully I get an opportunity to play,” he says, as if it is conceivable that head coach Dave Rennie would leave out such a dangerous player for a match of this magnitude. “It is just about putting in my normal performance. I’ve got a role and responsibility within this team to execute, so hopefully I can get a few opportunities to do that.
“It is going to be tough towards the end, but my focus is to help make sure that we have a final to look forward to the week after.
“We’re in a great place. In the last few games there has been a real clinical edge in our attacking game, and we’ve taken our opportunities when they have been on offer. We’ll just keep working hard this week and start getting excited. It is a huge task for us but one that we are excited for. We believe we can win.
“This place [Scotstoun] means a great deal to me. It was good to get a bigger stadium [when Warriors moved to their present venue from Firhill in 2012] and the club has grown year on year ever since. So, it is a special place. If I get the opportunity to play at the weekend, I’ll relish it, and hopefully use it as an opportunity to thank the fans with my performances over the next couple of games. Hopefully we can win some silverware.”
Warriors finished the regular season top of Conference A but the campaign has not been all plain sailing. There was a real dip in form at the turn of the year when they lost back-to-back matches against arch-rivals Edinburgh, then slipped up away to Benetton the following week.
There was also a painful defeat to Saracens at the quarter-final stage of the Heineken Champions Cup at the end of March, although Hogg believes that set-back ended up being a blessing in disguise.
“That was a great opportunity for us to do something special in Europe, but it was probably a good thing to happen to us at that stage of the season in terms of the manner we were beaten – we didn’t front-up, we didn’t take our opportunities apart from in the first minute, and we got schooled. It gave us the wee rocket up the backside we maybe needed, and it has put us in a good place now.
“We said after the game that if we keep playing like that then we’re going to win absolutely nothing, and you saw in our performance the week after against Ulster that there was a huge shift in the way we played. So, we were pleased with the manner we responded, and ever since then we seem to have taken it a step closer every single time.”
Hogg says the team will not read too much into that first post-Saracens scalp when they defeated Ulster 30-7 at Scotstoun at the start of April as they prepare to lock horns with the Northern Irishmen once again this weekend.
“If you look at the two scores that Tommy [Seymour] saved for us that night, it would have been a completely different ball game if they’d got them,” he points out. “We’ll have to be defensively solid throughout, and get into their key threats so they don’t build any momentum. I think the last time we had low possession stats, so we’ll be aiming to look after the ball a lot more.
“They’re a quality team and if you sit off them, they are going to get momentum going forward and they are difficult to stop on the back of that. They’ve got some cracking individual players and they really have a good collective team spirit. They are going to be sending off a couple of club legends [Rory Best and Darren Cave are retiring], so they’re going to be up for it.
“For us, it is probably the perfect week to concentrate on ourselves. We need to be solid in defence and clinical in attack like we have been the last couple of weeks. It is knock-out rugby now, so if we bugger it up then we’re done.”