AFTER coming off injured in the first half against England in 2017 and missing out on the match entirely two years later, Stuart Hogg no doubt hopes to be involved from first to last at Twickenham on Saturday. He also hopes his team will play from the first whistle to the last blast – something that they failed to do on those two previous visits in all but the most literal sense.
Scotland know that, to have a chance of upsetting the odds-on favourites in the Calcutta Cup, they will have to be at the top of their game throughout. But having that knowledge, and putting it into practice, are two very different things, as they learned very painfully four years ago.
Hogg talked a good game before that match, declaring in a press conference on the eve of the Six Nations that his team were “not just going to lie down and have our bellies tickled”. They did not exactly lie down, but they still lost 61-21 in a match which began in the worst possible fashion with hooker Fraser Brown being yellow-carded for a dangerous tackle.
An early injury to Hogg himself did not help, while two years later he was ruled out of the Twickenham trip by another injury earlier in the championship. That 2019 game, possibly the craziest in the history of a fixture that celebrates its 15oth anniversary this year, began by looking as hopeless from a Scots point of view as the one two years earlier had been, but then a famous fightback saw the visitors recover from 31-7 down at the break to briefly take the lead.
In the end, it was a 38-38 draw. A cause for celebration, certainly, because of that recovery and because down the decades Scotland have so rarely avoided defeat at Twickenham, their last victory having been way back in 1983. But also one more tale of what might have been, if only the team had done their talent justice in the first half-hour or so.
“It’s the same for every game: you’ve got to set your stall out early doors and make sure you’re switched on right from the kick-off,” the Scotland captain said as he looked ahead to Saturday. “The last couple of times we’ve been down there, we’ve conceded two or three tries very early. And as soon as that happens, the game plan goes out the window and you’re chasing the game.
“We need to focus on ourselves and the way we’re defending. We need to try to close them down, because they’ve got some quality, quality players – if you give them time and space, they’re going to cause damage.
“But if we flip that on its head and look at our opportunities in attack, we’ve got to make the most of every single one we get. It’s an exciting chance for us. We know we need to start well and we’re gearing up to make sure we’re in the best place possible.”
Scotland have changed a lot in the two years since that game, and Gregor Townsend’s starting 15 for this one will include only a handful of players who began in 2019. In the back division, perhaps only Ali Price and Finn Russell will keep their places, while in the pack Hamish Watson may be the only survivor. But no matter the changes in personnel, the key lesson remains the same: get it right from the start.
“It was a weird one, a very strange game of rugby,” Hogg said, looking back on that 2019 match. “Because I’d been involved in the first couple of weeks, I knew the way we were trying to play, I knew what we were trying to do, but unfortunately nothing seemed to go our way in the first half.
“The character of the squad in that second half, and the ability we showed we have as rugby players, was just incredible to watch. Going from being so low at half-time to as high as you can possibly be in the second half was just unbelievable.
“I was watching it back in Hawick. It was my daughter’s second birthday party, so we had a few people round. It was a great day. The family were enjoying everything and the topic of conversation for the rest of the night was that second-half performance. They’re still talking about it now – it was that good. I don’t think we’ll see a game of rugby like that ever again.”
That second-half display was indeed outstanding, but Hogg knows as well as anyone that playing at the top of your game for far longer than 40 minutes is the key. And that failing to do so on Saturday will almost certainly ensure that Scotland once more return from Twickenham without a win.
“We know what we’re capable of doing,” he added. “And now it’s all about getting as close to an 80-minute performance as we possibly can. That’s exciting for us.”