FEARS that Stuart Hogg’s days as a Glasgow Warriors player may be coming to an end were heightened yesterday when he was omitted from the squad for tonight’s RaboDirect Pro 12 play-off clash against Munster at Scotstoun Stadium.
Peter Murchie has been handed the No 15 jersey instead, and there is little doubt, based on recent form, that he deserves an opportunity to play in the biggest game in the club’s history, with his defensive resilience and solidity under the high ball likely to be vital in the face of an inevitable Munster bombardment.
However, the fact that Hogg has not even been named amongst the replacements is bound to be taken as the strongest hint yet that the relationship between the player and head coach Gregor Townsend is on the rocks.
Townsend said: “We pick what we think is the right team to win a game and reward players in form.
“Stuart knows he has probably not had enough rugby in that period [the last eight weeks]. We are in a great situation at full-back and Peter Murchie was outstanding against Edinburgh and very good when he came on at the weekend. Stuart has played well, but has not been able to have a full game with his back injury. That’s one reason he has missed out.”
The critical flaw in the logic of this explanation is that Sean Lamont has been named on the bench, despite the fact he has only managed 80 minutes of rugby (in a hopelessly one-sided match against Zebre last Saturday) since injuring ligaments in his knee playing for Scotland against France in early March.
Last weekend’s match was Hogg’s second game back after an extended lay-off due to suspension followed by a hamstring injury. He scored two scorching first-half tries against Zebre and would have had a hat-trick had he beaten Niko Matawalu in a race to the ball as it bobbled in the in-goal area. He was replaced at half-time with the explanation given that he had a stiff back – however, there is no suggestion that injury was a factor in this week’s team selection.
Hogg has been linked with a move to Ulster and a number of English clubs are thought to be interested in the 21-year-old. Townsend has so far refused to discuss the issue, apart from pointing out that the player has another season left on his contract and acknowledging that talks over his future beyond that have begun.
Given that Ulster are apparently prepared to double the player’s salary, the possibility of buying out his current contract is not that fanciful.
Hogg is not the only high-profile player to miss out this weekend. Duncan Weir, who was Scotland’s first choice stand-off throughout the Six Nations, also failed to make the cut. Youngster Finn Russell will be at No 10 instead, with Wasps-bound Ruaridh Jackson on the bench.
“Finn has grabbed his opportunity over the season. During the Six Nations, he came on against Cardiff and played very well and started the following week. He has played really well at inside centre, too. On each occasion he has taken his opportunity,” added Townsend.
“I’m delighted for him. He had a great summer in New Zealand last year and we got fantastic reports, then he came back and played a lot of good rugby for Ayr this season.
“He has always had a good base – good catch-pass, good evasion on the ball and he is a really good tackler, one of our best in the backline. He has brought that into composed performances for us.
“Duncie [Weir] played well at the weekend, and he played well when we beat Munster away. It is really more a credit to what Finn has done,” the coach added.
Russell will be supported by a highly physical centre partnership of Alex Dunbar, who has moved from outside to inside centre, and Mark Bennett – which can be taken as an indication that Townsend is expecting a battle of attrition.
“Alex is an outstanding player, one of the best for us and Scotland this season. He won our defensive award last week and scored a good try – although he maybe dived too early – and looked good in attack. It was a big decision who to play beside him. We felt that Mark is in a rich vein of form,” explained Townsend.
“We have to prepare for two games. Munster are very good at mixing things up. Rob Penney [the Irish team’s coach] introduced a way of playing that is unique in the northern hemisphere with his wide-to-wide rugby.
“They passed the ball most last season, which is very different to the past. But they have mixed that up with the traditional Munster game. You have forwards running hard at you, especially as they get further up the pitch and closer to the try line. We have to be aware that both games will go on, but also that the breakdown is the crucial area. They’re going to try to win quick ball and slow down our ball.”
With Munster likely to push the laws to the limit, club captain Al Kellock got the nod ahead of Tim Swinson in the second row. The 32-year-old will be determined to fight fire with fire when he lines up opposite the talismanic Paul O’Connell, and his rapport with referee Marius Mitrea could be crucial in a tight battle.
Glasgow Warriors team to play Munster, RaboDirect PRO12 Play-Off, Scotstoun Stadium, Friday 16 May (kick-off 7.35pm) – live on BBC ALBA/TG4/S4C:
15. Peter Murchie
14. Sean Maitland
13. Mark Bennett
12. Alex Dunbar
11. Tommy Seymour
10. Finn Russell
9. Chris Cusiter
1. Ryan Grant
2. Dougie Hall
3. Jon Welsh
4. Jonny Gray
5. Al Kellock (Captain)
6. Rob Harley
7. Chris Fusaro
8. Josh Strauss
16. Pat MacArthur
17. Gordon Reid
18. Geoff Cross
19. Tim Swinson
20. Leone Nakarawa
21. Niko Matawalu
22. Ruaridh Jackson
23. Sean Lamont