Scotland v Italy: Stuart Hogg focusses on the controllables

Switch to stand-off is more than enough to keep Scotland captain occupied without worrying about what is going to happen next weekend

Scott Steele and Stuart Hogg during Scotland's pre Italy match Captain's Run. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Scott Steele and Stuart Hogg during Scotland's pre Italy match Captain's Run. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

STUART HOGG says he’s had no time to worry about whether he will be released by Exeter Chiefs for next Friday night’s re-arranged final match of this 2021 Six Nations against France in Paris because he’s had his work cut-out this week adapting to a new position ahead of wearing the No10 jersey – in place of the concussed Finn Russell – against Italy tomorrow [Saturday] afternoon.

“For me, we just have to let the powers that be make the decisions,” he said. “All I’m concentrating on is the next 24 hours and playing against the Italians. I can’t look too far ahead. It’s a decision that’s out-with my hands, so therefore it’s pointless for me to speak about it.”

It is a fair point. For while it is inconceivable that a character as passionate about representing his country as Hogg is would be unconcerned about missing out on such an important match, he knows that his ability to influence the decision-making process at this stage is negligible. He has to trust that both the Six Nations and PRL – the umbrella organisation which represents the top clubs in England – are able to reach a grown-up resolution to this impasse without inflicting any more damage on the game’s reputation.


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Scotland v Italy: Gregor Townsend takes a calculated risk on Stuart Hogg at 10


It is a preposterous – though, sadly, not surprising – situation, which exposes just how far the sport has moved away from the Corinthian values it is so keen to market itself on. And while the PRL clubs are absolutely entitled to assert their rights over players to whom they pay handsome salaries, it is a risky business playing hardball against the goose which lays the golden eggs. As sparkly as the Premiership and Champions Cup has become in recent years, the difference between CVC’s investment in England’s top-flight league (£200m for 27 percent) against the investment in Six Nations (£365m for 14 percent) tells you where the real power in the game still lies.

Speaking of CVC, you do wonder about the influence they have had – or not had – in the background while two organisations which they have an active interest in struggle to reach a workable compromise.

There was a hint earlier tonight [Friday] that at least some Premiership clubs believe there is a deal to be struck, with a statement on the Worcester Warriors website stating that: “Warriors, like other Premiership clubs, will support the Scottish RU in releasing players provided it is on the same financial terms as English players are released to the RFU.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic has required flexibility and adaptability in all areas of life and we would always support our players in achieving their ambitions of playing at the highest level possible.”

Racing 92 have confirmed that Russell – the only French based player in the squad – will be released for next Friday’s match.

 

In the meantime, Hogg’s focus is on slotting into the chief playmaker role against Italy, as part of a new look team who really need to win convincingly after back-to-back disappointments against Wales and Ireland wiped away the positivity of their Six Nations opening weekend victory over England in early February.

Stand-off is a position he has only played on a handful of occasions since he was 15, with the last time he started a game there being for Glasgow Warriors against Benetton back in December 2016, but he says he is excited by the challenge, and determined to repay head coach Gregor Townsend’s faith in him.

“I enjoy being out my comfort zone, I enjoy being challenged, and I enjoy people writing me off by saying that this could go very, very wrong,” he said. “I’m not going out there to prove anything to anybody – I’m going to go out there to do my basics well and make sure I’m driving the team forward.

“And I have a huge amount of confidence about that because Gregor and the coaching staff have handed me the reins – and if I wasn’t capable of doing the job then they wouldn’t have given me it.

“I’m really nervous about the game but to get the best out of people you need to put them in uncomfortable positions, so this is the perfect scenario for me,” he added. “I’m not going to go into the game with as much as confidence as I would have if I was at 15 – but I’m excited about the challenge and hopefully I’ll bring the best out myself and the team.”

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Hogg has taken plenty advice this week from Finn Russell but knows that he has to concentrate on playing to his own strengths. “I won’t say I’m anything like Finn because nobody in the world of rugby is,” he smiled. “We have a game-plan which will get everyone involved, and I like to think that over the past couple of years I have improved at distributing to bring others into the game. I can’t see why that will change in any way.

“I just have to make sure that I don’t try to chase things too early and don’t try to score off every phase.

“When I jumped in at 10 in the Wales game it was a case of us closing out the game for the last 15 minutes so there wasn’t a huge amount of involvements, and the England game was similar because it was all about running down the clock until Finn came back on, whereas last week against Ireland was probably the time that I struggled the most because of the fact that I forgot at times that I was playing 10.

“When you move from 15 to 10 during the match, you are there for a couple of phases and then you can runaway and hide again at the back.

“So, that was the thing Finn and I discussed after the Ireland game, and he went through the analysis with me – you have to stay engaged for every single phase, whether the ball is out the back or with the forwards, making sure you organise the next phase. That’s something I’ve worked really, really hard this week.

“In training, we’ve got ourselves in some good positions, but the speed of ball has been absolutely electric because it’s not full on. I think tomorrow I’ll have a little bit more time to get myself in good positions to make sure we are going forward.

“It gets me involved in the game more. I might not have the time and space I’m used to, but it’s a great challenge.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m nervous about how it is going to go, but I’m mainly excited for it.”

Hogg’s half-back partner is Scott Steele, the 27-year-old Harlequins scrum-half who has been capped three times since being called into the squad last Autumn. The Scotland captain acknowledges that there will be an element of learning on the hoof but has been encouraged by how things have clicked so far.

“Scottie and I have driven the team around well in training this week,” he said. “The good thing for us is that not everything had gone perfectly, but it’ll keep us switched on. We’ve talked a lot in the last few weeks about living in the moment, and every single moment we have to be switched on until the ball’s dead.

“We have a hugely exciting back line and it’s going to mean opportunities for us if we get good front foot ball from the forwards and can distribute well form 9 and 10, to get those boys in the game. We all want to see Huw Jones, Sean Maitland, Darcy Graham and Duhan van der Merwe in open space with the ball, so that’s the target.

“Scottie has been absolutely terrific since joining the squad,” added Hogg. “12 months ago, it seemed he wasn’t going to have a contract but he worked incredibly hard over lockdown to get himself in shape and get himself a club, and I think he’s been absolutely outstanding for Quins in the games I’ve watched this year.

“Since coming into the Scotland camp he’s had a cap on the wing, another in the back-row and he brought big energy and impact when he has played at nine.

“I’m absolutely delighted for him. I’ve known him for a long time through being family friends. His dad and my dad were both referees so we would always meet up at Langholm Sevens because Dumfries is pretty close to Langholm.

“He’s a bundle of energy, a terrific defender and he loves to get stuck in for someone who is 5ft5in and 60kgs. I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do.”


Scotland v Italy: losing isn’t an option in a game which hosts can’t win

About David Barnes 4026 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.

3 Comments

  1. Italy are at the moment, if my history serves me, rather like France were when they joined the tournament years ago to make it the 5 Nations, they couldn’t win a game for Toffee, but for all that Italy are not a push over. Also a bit like the French of old, if they get an opportunity to get on top, their confidence grows, and they stick in the game as best they can and credit to them for that. It will not be a walk in the park and with a bit of a cobbled together starting XV, I think Townsend and the Players know that.
    There will be much attention to pressure on the half-backs, obviously, and also van der Merwe will have his handling and field positioning placed under scrutiny and to a lesser degree Darcy Graham, I haven’t even gotten around to worrying about the efficacy of the lines-out.
    The more you consider the pressure Scotland are under you begin to wonder who the underdogs in this fixture are. Hoping for a great [repeat] comeback for Huw Jones and that Scott Steele gets a good looking ¾ line performing that allows Darcy and Van the Man to get on the score sheet early doors.

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