STUART Hogg, the youngest player on tour with the British and Irish Lions, freely admits that he is a poor footballing imitation of his superstar relative George Best.
“I have got the touch of a baby elephant,” said Scotland full-back Hogg, ahead of his British and Irish Lions debut against the Barbarians tomorrow. But the Lions will hope Hogg can weave some of the magic that made him a stand-out performer during this season’s RBS Six Nations Championship when they target a winning start to their 10-match tour of Hong Kong and Australia.
The 20-year-old discovered last season that Manchester United and Northern Ireland football legend Best, who died in 2005, is related to him.
“It was after I was capped in Wales,” Hogg told reporters in Hong Kong after he was named in Warren Gatland’s starting XV to face the Barbarians.
“My dad’s parents both died when they were relatively young and he has always wanted to find out his family history. When I got capped, the Irish relatives got in touch with my dad, and he was in tears on the phone. To meet all the Irish relatives was pretty amazing, and it is amazing that has come about due to rugby. My dad [former Hawick full-back John Hogg] is Scottish, but my granny was Irish and off the Best side. It is a pretty amazing feeling to find out you are related in some way, maybe distant, to him. It’s pretty cool.
“I’ve been on YouTube a few times and watched some clips of him. He was some character, by the sound of things.”
Despite being just 15 caps into his Scotland career, Hogg is rated among the most exciting young players in European rugby and is determined to savour every minute of the Lions experience. He added: “It is quite surreal when you are putting on Lions T-shirts, looking at the badge and you are thinking ‘I’m not here as a supporter, I’m here as a player’.
“I am enjoying it, and I am looking forward to learning a lot on the tour. It’s pretty surreal being here, but I’ve got myself here on good performances, and I am hoping to continue that form. It’s an exciting couple of months ahead.
“I’ve got nothing to lose to be honest. Everybody is expecting Leigh [Halfpenny] to be the starting [Test team] number fifteen, and I will push him all the way to get that starting spot. But, at the end of the day, it’s good for me to have guys like that you can learn off. Rob Kearney as well, learning how they play fifteen, adapting to how they play and, hopefully, learning a lot from them.”
Hogg’s playing style, highlighted by his thrilling counter-attacking skills, might contribute towards him returning home in July as one of the Lions’ true success stories. The Baa-Baas clash could easily see him find full throttle, although sweltering temperatures and stifling humidity at Hong Kong Stadium will test players on both sides.
“Being a Scotsman and being used to rain all the time, it’s pretty tough coming out here,” added Hogg. “But I’m enjoying it. I have plenty of sunscreen. It’s massively important to take on water when you are out here. Every stoppage [in training] we’ve got the strength and conditioners and the nutritionists on with the water, so it’s much appreciated.
“The under-20s World Cup when we were in Italy was probably the warmest I have experienced, but it is nothing compared to what it is like here.”
Hogg, though, can only hope the Lions tour does not go the same way for him as that junior World Cup.
“From a personal point of view, it was a bit of a nightmare,” he added. “The first game when we played South Africa I got yellow-carded and I ended up getting cited after that. I got banned for two games. It was a massive learning curve. I was cited for a spear tackle, which was pretty stupid. You learn from your mistakes, and I’m a better player for it now.”
Hogg’s fellow Scotland international Richie Gray has already made a strong impression on his Lions team-mates ahead of tomorrow’s first outing.
The towering lock, who has returned to fitness after sustaining a hamstring injury in the Six Nations, has been flexing his muscles in preparation for the tour opener as Gatland’s 37-man squad jockey for positions in the first Test against Australian on 22 June. And, if Gray’s work in the gym is anything to go by, the 23-year-old – who joins Hogg and another Scotland colleague in Sean Maitland in the team to face the Barbarians – looks determined to make a powerful case for his inclusion in the starting line-up against the Wallabies.
Adam Jones is used to seeing a show of strength from Wales team-mates Dan Lydiate, George North and Lions skipper Sam Warburton, but the Ospreys prop has revealed his astonishment at Gray’s brute force.
Jones said: “Our first camp was probably around 70 per cent fitness work – power, endurance, conditioning.
“At this time of the season there’s not so much need to be running around, it’s more grappling and pushing and strength work. You can see in the weights room how the level of intensity goes up with the Lions. Everyone is trying to push a few kilos more.
“The likes of Dan Lydiate, George North and Sam Warburton are freaks in that area, but Richie Gray has impressed me. He is such a tall lad but phenomenally strong, dead lifting 200-odd kg straight off the floor. That is a fair old weight for someone who’s 6ft 10in and he is obviously very athletic too.”