Interview: Stuart Hogg on rugby, tragedy and growing up

Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg always acknowledges his late friend Richard Wilkinson, who died in a road accident, with a W sign after he scores a try. Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS

Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg always acknowledges his late friend Richard Wilkinson, who died in a road accident, with a W sign after he scores a try. Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS

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It is lunchtime at the Oriam,
so the rugby men have swapped their boots for trainers and, in one case, a smart pair of slip-on loafers, to cross the vast indoor plains of the sports complex for a refuel. In the canteen there’s a funny moment when an attractive girl flips open her laptop and three beefy lads – perhaps a complete front row – flip open their mouths in unison, forkfuls of food suspended at the midway point. These are Scotland’s under-21s, the stars of tomorrow, their stories not yet told. Meanwhile the superstar of today is in full flow, 
talking about genealogy.

Remember that yarn about Stuart Hogg being related to George Best? It sounded too fantastical, and 
maybe you forgot about it, especially after learning that the link was quite distant. Almost as distant as twisted-blood defenders were to the prospect of halting the Irish genius. Almost as distant as Bestie sometimes was from timekeeping, training and a good night’s sleep before games. “It turns out my granny’s granny was the sister of George’s great-grandfather,” Hogg revealed at the time.

But he never forgot about the connection and neither did his father John. “Dad lost his father really young, then his two sisters passed away and, just before I was born, his mother died,” explains the Scotland full-back.

Having reduced, though, the clan was to dramatically expand when a close relative of Best’s in Northern
Ireland watching rugby on TV heard a young man in dark blue being announced as “Hogg from Hawick”. The jungle drums started beating. John still had a cousin in the town and he was sent a letter alerting him to the link.

“This has been wonderful for Dad,” adds Hogg. “He’s got new family and that’s given him a new lease of life. It’s been amazing to see. Our brood has now doubled in size. Across in Ireland there are the Thompsons, the MacMillans and the Robertsons and they talk to my folks on a weekly basis. We call them the Dafties and they’re absolutely fantastic.”

Are there any other tie-ups between the two sportsmen? Well, you’d find plenty of admirers of gorgeous George explaining his rascally waywardness as a fundamental part of his character, almost to the extent of claiming that it was the hedonism which was partly responsible for the 
magic. You could gather up a few incidents from Hoggy’s career and 
categorise them as rascally waywardness but our man is not about to ask to be cut a bit of slack just because his end-product on the pitch is frequently 
dazzling.

Hogg has been red-carded. He’s fallen out with coaches. He’s tried to impersonate a leaping River Teviot salmon – this in a football stadium – which prompted the referee to remark: “Dive like that again and you can come back here in two weeks’ time and get a game.”

The 24-year-old winces. “Every one of the negative things you’ve just listed, I’m not proud. You’re asking if I was cocky – yes, I was. I was above my station, I’m not going to lie, but that made me realise that not everything in rugby is going to go my way. I was brought down a peg. Or five, you could say.”

Now, having screwed the nut, he talks about pride. The pride he gets pulling on the dark blue jersey. Making his mum, dad and big brother proud. Making his wife and son proud. Being a proud Hawick boy. And, most 
poignantly, making a much-missed friend proud, watching from the high stand after a truly tragic day on a windy Borders road.

First let’s nail the moment when, as Hogg admits, there was a danger he was starting to believe his own hype. The sending off came against Wales in 2014 after his shoulder smashed into the jaw of Dan Biggar as the stand-off hoisted a kick. “We got thumped, it was Dougie Fife’s first cap and I let him down. I also let down all the Scottish fans who’d spent hard-earned money getting to Cardiff to see us being hammered and it was my fault.”

In his defence he pleads immaturity. “A lot happened to me at a young age. I went on a Lions tour at 20 then got red-carded at 21.” But he knows he wasn’t too clever. “At the end of that season I had a really negative attitude. I’d 
wasted half of it. I went in the huff over a [Glasgow Warriors] contract I didn’t think was good enough when I hadn’t done anything to merit one and tried to leave. That was the first time I got bad press and I didn’t like it. I realised I had to grow up, and quick.

“Dad gave me a good kick up the backside. I started working with [renowned sports motivator] Steve Black who was brilliant and along with Gregor
[Townsend, his Warriors coach] helped me get the best out of myself. The important thing is to learn from your mistakes. I believe I’m the player I am, and the person I am, because I have learned.”

Hogg – thank goodness – hasn’t turned into a dull automaton out on the field. There are still flashes of free-spirit flamboyance you’d expect from a man who thinks it’s not such a daft idea to have your wedding day splashed across the pages of Hello! magazine. “We didn’t want it to be too cringey,” he says of photo-spread. “I’d like to think it was good publicity for Scottish 
rugby.” So’s the upcoming Lions tour and Hogg will surely be on the plane to New Zealand and is the choice of many for Test full-back.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. First there’s the Six Nations which, for Scotland, begins against 
Ireland today. In last year’s tournament there was no finer sight than Hoggy collecting in deep defence and prancing like a colt delighted to be 
trying out its legs for the first time. But he was also generating power. And maybe ever so cockily (that word again) he was warning the opposition what was coming. He’d pick his spot in their line and charge, ball in two hands, only to transfer it to one when he’d emerge on the other side, whizzing in a 
cartoon blur.

No finer sight – and that’s official. Hogg was voted the competition’s best player. That must have been gratifying, I say but, just as Hogg won’t look ahead to the Lions other than to say it would be “the pinnacle” to be selected after having watching the DVD of the 1997 tour “about a million times”, he isn’t looking back either.

“It was great to get that award but it’s very much in the past. I played in a very good Scottish team last season and I was only as good as the guys around me. It’s not just a 15-man game either. Every one of the squad of 37 plays his part. Some of the moves were finished off with a wee bit of magic and we managed a couple of excellent wins. Now we want to build on that success, take it further.”

Today’s training is the closest to full-match intensity that Vern Cotter can devise. Hogg has lunched on chilli,
salmon pastry and salad and after we’re done talking is looking forward to the one evening when the squad are allowed to return home, there to see his wife Gill and 14-month-old son Archie.

Parenthood must help a man mature, I say, and he laughs. “When I became a dad I soon realised: ‘Not everything’s about me now. It’s not going to all go my way anymore.’ Gill, who’s a florist, was only working part-time before so I could drop my kit bag at the front door and my tea would be on the table. No longer! I had to adapt pretty quickly but, you know, I love being a dad and hopefully in a few weeks’ time another baby will be coming along.”

Their second child is due on April Fool’s Day and the couple, who married last summer and live in Glasgow’s Bearsden, will be hoping for less 
drama this time round. Archie was delivered by emergency caesarean at Borders General Hospital more than six weeks early after Gill was struck by pre-eclampsia, a potentially fatal condition. “It was pretty scary,” admits Hogg. “We were hanging on for as long as possible without putting Gill and the wee man in danger. There were 20 people in that room at BGH – some of them medical students – which made it even scarier still. Gill was worried if Archie was going to be all right, and if she was. Whatever apprehension I was feeling, times that by a hundred for her. But she was an absolute star.”

Can we run any further with the Bestie connection, the bold desire to entertain perhaps? Hogg doesn’t know much about football and had to rev up YouTube to familiarise himself with George’s skills. “He was an absolutely baller, wasn’t he? I love watching him go about his work. Maybe it’s in the blood, wanting to express yourself and have fun. If it is I’m very proud.”

His father, encouraging a lad who used to play full-contact rugby on unforgiving tarmac back in Hawick, always accentuated the flair. Young Stuart missed John’s career with the town team but saw him turn referee. “There was one famous occasion when his false tooth fell out. A 
player retrieved it from the mud and Dad popped it back in, complete with a bit of grass!”

Hogg was amused on a visit to his old primary school to find his stated ambition in an old yearbook listed as “professional jockey”. “Coming from Hawick I was really into my horses and back then I was five foot nothing and weighed only 50 kegs.” His pale blue eyes light up as he talks about about Hawick’s Common Riding and the exalted position of Cornet. His father, his best man Euan Reilly and cousin
Craig Rogerson have all held it. “If you’re a Hawick boy, you grow up wanting to wear the green rugby jersey
or the green coat of the Cornet. The Riding celebrates beating the English. You go right round the town boundaries carrying the flag. I’d have love to have been the Cornet but my chance has gone. I can’t ride horses anymore in case I fall off and injure myself.”

He used to love the games of the ill-fated Borders pro-team, begun with a horse’s gallop. “I played a tag-match before the very first one, dived in the same spot for three tries for the school and got a row off the groundsman.” But when Hogg looks back on his young life – not all that long ago, don’t forget – the memories are tinged with sadness. “Saturday, the 4th of April, 2009,” he says quietly. Hogg and his pal Richard Wilkinson, Hawick Wanderers 
prospects, had been at a sevens tournament in Kelso when they accepted a lift back home. “We had a game of rock, paper, scissors, Richard won and got to sit in the front of the car. Unfortunately we got involved in a race.” At 90mph the vehicle overturned. Hogg, in the back, managed to force the glass in the rear window and climb to safety but Richard, then 17, wasn’t so lucky. Two youths were jailed for four and a half years for causing his death by 
dangerous driving.

“At that age you think you’re 
invincible, don’t you? Richard was a fantastic rugby player, a great lad, the life and soul of the party and I miss him every single day. But, much as I lost a good friend, Tommy and Sandra lost a son and Matthew and Emily lost a brother. What happened was a million times worse for them.

“I’ve got Richard’s initials tattooed on my ribs and every time I score a try I make a ‘W’ sign for him. I’m trying to bring him along on this journey
I’m making because I’m sure if he’d lived he’d have been right there alongside me. I want to make his family proud, and also our friends. Some went to Kinross to become jockeys, I went to Glasgow and some stayed in Hawick. We’re all still very close and try to make sure we’re back home at the same time so we can have a 
couple of quiet ones together.”

Hogg knows that fate has smiled on him. Older brother Graham was highly promising, too, before cruciate ligament injury. In an ideal world Hogg would be playing under a Borders flag as well as the Scotland one, and jokes that maybe the pro-team could be revived “with the money Greig [Laidlaw] will make from his move to Clermont”. But it’s not a bad world he inhabits, with JK Rowling namechecking him in Pottermore, the digital outlet for her wizarding adventures. “I’ve met her a couple of times. She’s one of these people where you go: ‘F***, they’re special.’ She’s a big fan of the team and it’s incredible to have her supporting us.” This is only the second time he swears today. Then he adds: “Unfortunately she’s still not following me on Twitter!”

The other time comes while relating the story of his first cap. “Andy 
Robinson flipped the chart and there was my name. I thought to myself: ‘This is really real.’ His father, on learning his laddie had made the team, burst into tears. John, with Hogg’s mother Margaret, who played rugby herself and often floors the household with her game knowledge, will be at Murrayfield today. “When I go out for my warm-up Dad always gives me a whistle. There’ll be something wrong the day they’re not among the first 100 in the stadium.”

Sometime during the Six Nations Hogg will win his 50th cap. It’s a big year for him in many ways. There’s Glasgow’s bid for the Champions Cup and then, all being well, the Lions. Before then, Ireland. And right now, some quick quality time with his wife and son.

“Gill and I have been discussing baby names. I’ve asked if this one can be really short as it’ll have to go on my ribs and the tattoos seem to be getting more painful. That didn’t go down too well! But I’m looking forward to a wee play with Archie to toughen him up. Before I came to the Scotland camp he got a wee bump and there was some blood. That was good to see.” He pauses and laughs. “Now I sound like Vern Cotter!”

He must be going, otherwise Finn Russell says he’ll have to get home by himself.

“I’m sharing a car with him, Alex Dunbar and Ali Price. In the old days we’d have stopped off for a few coffees and I’d have told Gill we got stuck in traffic. I can’t do that now.

“When I started playing rugby it was all about what I could get out of the game. Everything’s changed. For the better.”

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