STUART Hogg has so far played only a handful of games for Exeter, but he has already made a significant impact according to Rob Baxter, the Chiefs’ head coach. The former Glasgow full-back will turn out against his old team for the first time in this Saturday’s Champions Cup pool match, and it would be a surprise if he did not play a significant part in the way the game pans out. Yet, as Baxter explained, the real reason the West Country club signed the 27-year-old is for the difference they hope he makes not at this stage of proceedings, but at the business end of the season.
Since being promoted to the English Premiership in 2010, Exeter have continued to improve steadily, and have finished second or first at the end of the last four regular seasons. But they have so far been champions only once, when they beat Wasps in the play-off final in 2017, and they have also only once progressed out of their pool in the Champions Cup.
The club therefore had to ask themselves how they could go about ensuring more regular silverware domestically and more frequent qualification for the knock-out stages in Europe. Convinced they had more than enough brute force up front, they decided they needed something subtler and less predictable in the backs – which is where Hogg came in, as Baxter explained.
“I think this is the decision you’ve got to make – you’ve got to try and decide do you want to win big games, and maybe the gamble you take is you have that one less forward who may be a bigger influence in wet-weather games,” the coach said at the Champions Cup launch in Cardiff earlier this month. “That’s what we decided to do with Stuart. We decided to go for matchwinners to give us that bit of cutting edge in big games where maybe we’ve just come up that little bit short. And we’ve got to back the rest of the squad to be able to help us get there and battle our way through certain games – including Stuart – when things might not be quite how we want to be, but we’ve got a bigger plan for the whole season.
“It’s something we’ve looked at for quite a while. It’s really important to try to assess where you get a bit of real input – but for value – within your team. You can hold it together, say through the winter period or through the difficult periods, to be where you kind of need to be when semi-finals and finals get played. And when semi-finals and finals get played, there will be more and more opportunities for quality backs to have an influence on the game.
“It’s a little bit tough now – Stuart’s first game was basically at Bath in a gale and constant rain, and his job as a full-back was probably more just to catch ball and kick it, and his influence is going to be limited. That won’t be the same in the latter stages of either Europe or the Premiership when big games come around.”
Exeter have had mixed fortunes so far in the league, and since since Hogg made his debut in that three-point defeat by Bath they have gone on to win narrowly at Worcester and then lose – again by three points – at home to Bristol. But their opening Champions Cup Pool Two match at the weekend saw them back at their best as they won 31-12 at La Rochelle, and they will be favourites to make it two wins from two when they take on Glasgow, who had a laboured 13-7 victory over Sale at the weekend.
“Stuart’s settled in fantastically well,” Baxter added. “I’ve been really pleased with his performance levels – I think he’s already given us some momentum, as in front-foot ball. I thought at Worcester in particular he was absolutely rock solid under the high ball. Tactically he’s in the right place all the time, which is a massive benefit of having a quality full-back.
“He’s someone who’s actually dropped in and after one week’s training has started playing. He played at Bath and did well for us – he’ll admit himself there were a couple of mistakes in his game, but for a guy who has just dropped into a team that’s wanting to win games of Premiership rugby he’s done fantastically well.
“ I think there’s two things that you need from quality players. You need a little bit of cutting edge when the opportunity’s there, but you also need that solidity in what they do on a day-to-day basis in their job, and Stuart’s got a lot of good qualities there as a full-back as well. The way he can kick, the way he reads the game and gets backfield coverage organised – those are some of the things that will be really important for us this season.”
Back in the driving seat
The speed at which Hogg got back playing following the World Cup has contrasted with the approach taken by both Scottish teams with some of their players. The Warriors’ Jonny Gray, for example, will only resume playing after this weekend’s games are out of the way. But, far from having pressurised his new signing into a precipitate return, Baxter explained it was the player himself who wanted to get out there.
“Stuart almost gave me no option. Because he texted me within a couple of hours of the final [that is, Scotland’s final match] and he asked me what the plan was, and he said ‘I’m just desperate to get back and I want to crack on – I’m gutted the World Cup’s finished, but I feel the best way to get over this is to get back, get training with the lads, and get on with playing’. So really he kind of handed it back to me a little bit.
“Now we didn’t pick him the very first week he was back – he got in late in the week and we didn’t involve him in that first game. But he did plenty of work over that weekend, then he had a full week’s training, and he was desperate to go. And I’m so glad we did really now.
“I think it’s funny, really, when people talk about game time and rest periods. Only two years ago I was sitting here when people were telling me why the Irish model was so much stronger than the English model and the Irish model was more rest. Now you’ve seen an Irish team hasn’t won the European Cup, Ireland have had a relatively disappointing World Cup, and you’re starting to see questions like do the Irish players play enough games? Whose structure is the best? Because you’ve seen England do better than Ireland in both Europe and in the World Cup, and now there’s a debate is the Premiership system better than the Irish system or the Scottish system?
“You’ve got to be careful that you don’t look for one system being better than the other when a lot of it may be built around generations of players or groups of players who you have fit and working together over an extended period – because I actually think that has far more influence on outcomes of seasons than international periods or almost anything else.”