STUART Hogg has been handed a glorious chance to ensure his place in the British and Irish Lions Test squad to face Australia in Brisbane in 12 days’ time, by playing stand-off against the New South Wales-Queensland Country team tomorrow.
The 20-year-old has turned in good performances so far against the Barbarians and Queensland Reds, but both times in his familiar full-back role. He has stepped in at stand-off on occasions during games with Glasgow Warriors, but has not started a game in the ten jersey since he was wearing the green of his home-town club Hawick before turning pro.
Lions coaches Warren Gatland and Rob Howley sought the advice of Glasgow head coach Gregor Townsend on whether Hogg could provide back-up for the stand-offs after Jonny Wilkinson had ruled himself out of the initial party. Townsend indicated that he had the skills to do so and so Hogg was added and now, with Jonny Sexton nursing a hamstring strain, the Lions have decided to give him a run at fly-half and if he handles the occasion as well as he has so far, he is expected to be inked-in for the Test bench with Welshman Leigh Halfpenny the current front-runner to start in the 15 jersey.
Gatland explained: “Given that both the tens have been involved for every game so far, we are probably at the stage now where we need to look after them a little bit and give them an opportunity for a rest.
“We haven’t picked a ten to cover on the bench, so we need to look at probably running Leigh Halfpenny a little bit there if Stuart Hogg gets injured, or probably someone like Jonathan Davies as well.
“To be honest, the tour is probably about two matches too short for us. You would like a couple more warm-up matches before going into the first Test. We’ve just got to make sure we look after the players in terms of the physical impact on their bodies. There was a reasonable amount of claret spilt from both teams [on Saturday]. That’s how hard and tough it was, but that is what top rugby is all about.”
Added to the selection intrigue is Hogg’s Glasgow team-mate Sean Maitland who shifts from the wing to full-back, and Scotland lock Richie Gray also returns to the field despite playing in the gruelling match against the Reds on Saturday. Ryan Grant will also feature for the first time, having been called up on Friday as he prepared to play for Scotland against Samoa in Durban. He starts on the bench, in the same Newcastle stadium where he made a winning Scotland debut against the Wallabies a year ago, with the other new arrival, Alex Corbisiero, starting in the front row with Richard Hibbard and Dan Cole.
Gatland has also rung the changes in the centres, reuniting Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll with Welshman Jamie Roberts in a partnership that served the Lions well in 2009. And Welsh wingers Alex Cuthbert and George North join Gray in starting the match, just threee days after playing significant roles in the Reds fixture.
Last night, 24-year-old Maitland, who qualifies for Scotland through his Glaswegian grandparents and only made his Scotland debut against England in February, spoke of his delight at being selected, albeit in the slightly less familiar role of full-back.
“I’ve worn the 15 jersey many times for Canterbury and in a few games for the Crusaders as well,” he explained.
“They are all linked, wingers and full-backs.”
In fact, his last match at full-back came in a Heineken Cup defeat for Glasgow Warriors against Castres in December, but he remains unfazed.
“It was a few months ago, but I’m really excited for the challenge,” he said.
“At full-back, you’ve just got to be smart about your positional play as well, but it’s all related.
“The boys have been on their computers doing their homework off the field, so that’ll be me for the next couple of days, trying to learn my role.”
Meanwhile, Ireland back Simon Zebo was called in to the touring squad yesterday as a replacement for the injured Tommy Bowe who broke a bone in his hand in Saturday’s hard-fought 22-12 win over the Queensland Reds.
Gatland and his staff were forced into discussions about a replacement for Bowe with 23-year-old Cork wing Zebo appearing to have received the nod ahead of a selection from the England trio of Mike Brown, Ben Foden and Christian Wade.
Zebo, who had spoken of his disappointment at missing out on the initial squad selection, played for 75 minutes in Ireland’s hard-fought 15-12 win over the United States in Houston on Saturday before being replaced by Felix Jones.
He was due to depart Texas for Australia last night, having received a call from tour manager, Guy Richardson.
“I’m absolutely over the moon. It is the best news I could ever have dreamed of,” said Zebo.
And there is still a degree of optimism that Bowe could recover quickly and be involved in the Test series against Australia as Gatland explained: “The surgeon who spoke to him said that if everything goes all right it could be just a couple of weeks. Once the plate is put in, the bones are fixed, basically.”