SINCE becoming captain of the Scotland team after the 2019 World Cup, Stuart Hogg has made a point of talking up the importance of the team’s contribution whenever asked about his own impressive achievements in the dark blue jersey.
He stuck to his own self-imposed script after this [Saturday] afternoon’s victory over Japan, although he did express his own personal delight at scoring his 25th try for the national team, which moved him clear of Ian Smith and Tony Stanger (Grand Slam heroes in 1925 and 1990, respectively) to become the Scotland’s all-time top scorer.
“I loved it, and I loved then being told by Ali Price and Hamish Watson to put the ball down before I celebrate!” he chuckled, as he looked back at his 26th minute score, which inscribed his legend into the annals of Scottish rugby history, and put his team back in front after two Rikiya Matsuda penalties had wiped out Duhan van der Merwe‘s early try.
“I think you can see in my reaction how much it meant to me but the main thing is we got a good win and we’ll take it and move on,” he added.
It perhaps wasn’t the flowing performance Hogg and his team had been hoping for to sign-off this Autumn series, but the full-back insisted that the general vibe within the squad is positive about both this game specifically and the last month in general.
“Not far from where we need to be,” he surmised. “At times we were spot-on [today], I think the first period of defensive play was absolutely outstanding, it was 16 or 17 phases we defended and we were in control of it, although there were little parts we let slip.
“Our discipline at times wasn’t where we need it to be but we won a Test match, we managed to win three of four games in the Autumn and the exciting thing for me is we’re not quite satisfied with everything that happened.
“It was our last opportunity together for a couple of months so we wanted to put in a performance that we’re proud of , and at times we were very, very clinical, and we were good defensively.
“We’re yet to find the compete 80-minute performance but I think that was because we were put under a lot of pressure by Japan. They managed to hold onto the ball for large periods of the game and as you can see the ref was favouring the attacking side so we just had to take our medicine and be clinical when we got an opportunity.
“The key thing is we all learn individually and we all learn collectively and make sure we’re in a better position when we come back in the Six Nations,” he continued. “Hopefully, we keep everybody fit and we keep challenging each other, but I’d love to see a complete 80-minute performance. I know it’s a massive ask but I wouldn’t ask for it if I didn’t believe we could do it.
“That’s just making sure we’re in control on both sides of the ball, it’ll come. There are a few different combinations, I think there’s 12 guys been capped for Scotland over the last four games which is incredible for us, so we’ll just keep plugging away and we’ll be in a good place.”
Hogg did concede that the number of penalties conceded – 11 according to the official match stats – was a disappointment, and not for the first time during this series.
“It was the same last week,” he said. “For us it was a big snowball effect in terms of we didn’t reload quick enough, we weren’t quite as dominant as we’d like to be in our collisions, and ended up with men lying on the wrong side.
“They wanted to play quick ball and at times we got caught out by that, but it’s another opportunity for us to learn and improve. Unfortunately, it killed us last week, [but] we were a bit luckier today and managed to adapt and overcome and be in better positions.”
There was a fairly animated discussion between Hogg, Finn Russell, Grant Gilchrist and Stuart McInally, when Scotland got a penalty 25 metres out and slightly to the right of the posts with just over two minutes left to play. Russell indicated that he wanted to go to the corner but the skipper insisted that he take the three points which would take the home side out of reach of their guests.
“He told me after the game he was only winding me up, which was fine because there were three of us against him and I like to think he was going to listen to us,” revealed Hogg.
“It was never in doubt that we were going to the posts but he just thought he’d try and waste a little bit of time by winding me up … and wind me up he did!”
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Meanwhile, head coach Gregor Townsend was also in fine fettle at the end of a game, despite his tam’s performance not quite reaching the eleven he had hoped for.
“It was a real Test match,” he said. “Japan showed the level of play we had from them in 2019, the level we knew was coming. They are an ambitious and accurate team, and it is difficult when you are defending long phases to get yourself into the game.
“Not many teams will keep ball in their own half and go through the phases like that. I think they are the only ones in world rugby. A lot of referees now are favouring the attacking team – that’s fine, he was consistent – but it makes it hard to find a way into the game.
“You have to keep your control and discipline and patience in defence – and I felt we did that for large parts.
“Japan had a lot of possession and they have scored a lot of tries in the past, whereas they got only one today and it was a bit of a freak with two guys ripping the ball at a line-out.
“We always felt in control of the scoreboard even though, on the field, Japan were threatening us with the ambitious and accurate attack they brought. We need our team to go through these tests and find ways to win which we did today.
“I’ve got to commend the defensive effort,” he added. “We had to come through adversity with penalties against us and the yellow-card [for Jamie Bhatti at the start of the second-half]. I felt our contact work in attack was the best it has been in the whole campaign. It was an area we were focused on improving after last week so that was really pleasing
“That allowed us to have some really good attacking moments.”
Next up for Scotland is England on the 5th February in the opening round of the 2022 Six Nations. Townsend knows his team will have to be more accurate and disciplined if they are to double-up on their 2021 success over the Auld Enemy, but he insists that that he is pleased with how the squad is shaping up.
“In this [Autumn] campaign we’ve certainly introduced more players into our squad – 12 new caps which is unheard of – and we’ve seen players thrive in our environment, thrive when they’ve had the opportunity to play,” he said.
“We’ve developed further, we’ve tried to take our defensive game on, get a bit more extra out of our defence, and it’s something we’re still working on.
“We’ve been resilient at times,” he continued. “Today and against Australia in particular, we’ve found ways to win.
“But we’ve also got lots to improve. We’ll play teams with a similar philosophy and strength to South Africa in the Six Nations. We’ll get that in our next game, which is here against England.
“Every time you play it’s not going to be perfect, but I feel that the players are working so well together. I loved the four weeks in their company and seeing them at training and off the field, and we can’t wait to get them back together in a couple of months’ time.”