DAVID BARNES in TOKYO
STUART HOGG has been one of the poster boys of Scottish rugby for several years now, so it didn’t come as a great surprise when he was approached last week by an enthusiastic local fan, grasping a Scotland team poster and looking for a signature – but the subsequent conversation did not go quite the way he had anticipated.
The full-back was able to laugh it off when the eager fan asked if he was Finn Russell, before politely explaining that there had been a case of mistaken identity. “The guy looked at his sheet again and WP Nel came next,” explained the full-back with wide-eyed incredulity. “I think it must have been the haircut,” he added.
Fortunately, the full-back was able to laugh off being confused for a tight-head prop. He is clearly in a pretty good place at the moment having enjoyed the camaraderie of a tough summer building up to the World Cup. With the big event now just four days away, there is a buzz in the squad about getting that long-awaited chance to finally put plans into action
“We’re across the other side of the world from where we’re used to being, we’ve not got our friends or family close by, but we very much talk about being a family within the squad,” said Hogg. “Boys are enjoying each other’s company, there’s a good bit of craic happening.
“There are some characters in the squad who’ve been keeping us going. There’s always bus entertainment, there is joke of the day and there’s a fair amount of songs to be sung.
“We’ve tried to make this experience as enjoyable as we can. The boys are having fun on and off the field and making sure we’re in as best frame of mind, as well as the best physical condition we can be, to win a World Cup.
“It’s been very enjoyable so far. We’ve had terrific reception from everyone and been welcomed with open arms. We’ve had a huge amount of support and the boys are enjoying themselves. We’re going to keep embracing the culture but ultimately we’re here to do a job and the focus is very much on that.”
Which brings us to Sunday, and an appointment against the world’s top-ranked team. Hogg reckons it is the best possible start for Scotland. “In Test match rugby there is no such thing as an easy game but if there’s a time to take on Ireland then I believe it’s now, before they build up a head of steam,” he said.
“We are fully aware of the challenge they will bring. But we are very much focused on ourselves and we’re determined to ensure we bring our ‘A’ game to the party. Defensively we will have to be spot on, we believe defence will win the World Cup.”
Meanwhile, assistant coach Danny Wilson confirmed that there are no fresh injury concerns in the squad, meaning Jamie Ritchie – who cracked a facial bone during Scotland’s final warm-up match – is the only doubt for Sunday’s curtain-raiser.
“Jamie will train with us today, so he is making progress,” Wilson explained. “He is a big question mark for this weekend, obviously, but hopefully he will get through training and will be available for the next game.
Magnus Bradbury, who did not make he the initial 31-man World Cup squad, but flew out to Japan with the team as injury cover for Ritchie, will remain with the group for the time being.
“He is not part of our training party now that Jamie has come back in,” explained Wilson. “There are obviously rules and regulations that we will be sticking to and then a decision will be made off the back of this game.”
Sunday’s opponents have had their own injury concerns with Robbie Henshaw already ruled out for the game, while Keith Earls and Rob Kearney are major doubts – but Wilson insisted that the Scotland camp were not concerning themselves too much with that.
“As a coaching and playing group, I don’t think we get too concerned about the speculation,” he said. “Once you get confirmation of the team you are facing you then look in more detail. You second guess things and over-think it if you don’t.
“We are concentrating very much on ourselves, our game-plan and our standards in training.
“I think they are one of the best teams in the world. We’ve seen those performances in recent times. They have had some huge wins and maybe the odd game they wouldn’t be happy with, but they are full of quality players and quality coaches, so we know that we are going against a very good team,” he concluded.