STUART Hogg is set to make his long-awaited comeback for Glasgow Warriors in this weekend’s crunch Champions Cup pool game against Leinster. It will be a first outing of the season for the full-back, who last played on the Lions tour to New Zealand in the summer and has since had surgery on a shoulder problem.
The 25-year-old came close to being selected for Glasgow’s opening pool match against Exeter Chiefs last weekend, but in the event took no part as the Scots went down to their first competitive defeat of the season. This time round, however, it looks all but certain that Hogg will be involved, with the crucial question being whether he begins the match in the starting line-up or will have to wait patiently before coming off the bench.
“Hoggy is running around,” Glasgow assistant coach Jason O’Halloran said on Tuesday. “He’s available for selection. That’s the big one, I guess.
“He was close to being selected against Exeter, so I’m sure he’ll be some part of the 23. Whether he’s starting or off the bench is yet to be determined.
“He has great energy and enthusiasm. Ruaridh [Jackson] has played outstandingly in his absence, but we felt we needed to get Hoggy in there this weekend. We would have liked to have brought him off the bench against Exeter, but that wasn’t available to us so didn’t happen. He’s done well in training and we’re looking at him to be involved this weekend.”
Jackson has indeed been in excellent form at full-back since rejoining Glasgow in the summer, but the return of Hogg will nonetheless boost the morale of the squad and supporters alike. After that loss to Exeter without even the consolation of a losing bonus point, the Warriors need a big performance against Leinster to get their European campaign back on track, and no player responds better to such a challenge than Hogg.
Glasgow had a demanding build-up to their game against the Chiefs, having had to play at altitude in Bloemfontein in their previous match, and O’Halloran accepted that the schedule may have had an adverse effect on them. He insisted, however, that the main reason for their loss was their own shortcomings.
“I don’t think we lacked preparation at all. Maybe the travel from Africa was a bit of a factor, we maybe lacked a bit of urgency to get a bit of strength in attack at times, but we can’t use that as an excuse as we need to be better on the day. The kicking game and the discipline were the two things that let us down.”
“We were guilty of trying to put too much width on our play at times when going around the ruck would be a better option. And our kicking game we lost out, which led to territory of 61 percent – which I guess on a slippery field in a pressure game was probably the difference.
“I guess we misread conditions. When we got to the ground the field was soaked. I don’t know how that worked out. How we planned to play was not conducive to the conditions we faced. It’s been good for us, highlighted an area of the game where we have to develop a bit more. We don’t want to be a one-dimensional team going east-west all day. We want to go up the middle at times.
“Hopefully we’ll have a bit of balance to our game against Leinster. They have a very strong pack, and I’d imagine they’ll look to kick a lot and try and play off errors. If they can force handling errors through line speed then go to scrums, that leads to penalties or maybe line-out drives. We have to be more disciplined as well, because penalties is a great way to go to lineouts.”
The Warriors are renowned for adventurous, running rugby, with Hogg and Finn Russell the key exponents of that style, but O’Halloran knows that an approach which can bear fruit in the PRO14 is not always the route to success in Europe. Exeter demonstrated as much at Sandy Park, getting the better of Glasgow up front.
“It’s very much the way the European championship is being played. The PRO14 has been won by expansive teams in the last three campaigns – Glasgow, Connacht and Scarlets. This is a completely different competition: it’s win at all costs. It’s more about winning the physical battle and trying to bully teams, particularly away from home. Winning by any means possible. If it means winning by multiples of three, then that’s how teams will go about it. Leinster like to play rugby, so if you go overly round the fringes they will pick you apart. We need to be on guard that is for sure.
“They’ve won the European Cup three times and won the PRO12 a few years ago. They’re a good team steeped in success. I think having that history of success helps in tight games. We didn’t get it right in the last 15 minutes against Exeter: we gave away a couple of crucial penalties. Leinster are very good at shutting games down. They have a good pack, but can play a fast game of rugby if you show them space.”
“I think you have to change your game [for Europe]. In the domestic competition we have 21 games to iron out our game plan and get that right by May next year. Here in Europe you don’t get 21 games to get your game right. You have to be right from the word go. It means you have to be a bit more conservative.”
While Hogg will make his seasonal debut, hooker Fraser Brown is certain to miss out on Saturday after being injured against Leinster. Glasgow expect to learn today or tomorrow when the front-row forward is likely to be available again.