WINNING Test matches is enough for any Scottish player to focus on, but, as the team prepares to take on the Welsh dragon at Murrayfield, the rest of us can afford to consider the sub-plot of a race that is bubbling up nicely for the other red jersey, the one that belongs to Lions.
In less than two weeks the great proving ground for any British and Irish Lions hopefuls, the RBS Six Nations Championship, will be over and attention will turn to the announcement of the 35 or so players chosen to tour Hong Kong and Australia in June and July. Lions head coach Warren Gatland has a number of tough calls to make, but nowhere is the competition stronger, arguably, than at full-back.
Scotland supporters are excited about the prospects of Stuart Hogg, the 20-year-old who has built steadily on his first season in the Test arena and been joined by Tim Visser and Sean Maitland to create a potent new attacking unit. But, Hogg is the baby of the contenders and faces serious competition from all four home nations.
England have two possibles, with Harlequins’ No 15 Mike Brown having won plaudits for his stats while playing on the wing. Saracens’ Alex Goode is another contender. Ireland’s Rob Kearney is one of the best full-backs in world rugby and, having proven that on his first Lions tour in 2009, the former Gaelic footballer is a certainty to tour again, barring injury.
That leaves the two who will come face to face at Murrayfield tomorrow, Hogg and Leigh Halfpenny.
Both are exciting talents with a variety of strings to their bow. Halfpenny is also a talented wing with an albeit short-lived experience of the last Lions tour before he got injured. Hogg played most of his teenage years at centre and stand-off and brings unpredictability. Both also have mighty kicking boots.
Their versatility and goal-kicking talent could be handy, as all five named full-back contenders will not be selected. Three is the likely number, with possibly one extra as a utility back.
Hogg is a straight-talking lad, born and bred in Hawick, and is happy to discuss the Lions in the wake of support this week from Chris Paterson, a Scotland full-back who never got that chance. Equally, Hogg has a mature head on young shoulders and is acutely aware that such talk is premature with two Six Nations matches still to play.
“The Lions has been flung about,” he said, “but I just try to concentrate and take each game as it comes. It’s a cliché, but I’ve learned that you have to because you don’t know what’s round the corner. I’m a big believer in what’s for you won’t go by you so, if it comes, it comes. If not, I will keep working on my game.
“The Lions is a long way away. So, all I am concentrating on is Scotland versus Wales.”
That is reassuring for Scotland supporters, but, after showing his attacking side against England and Italy and scoring tries in each game, Hogg was afforded the chance to show his defensive abilities against Ireland. It was easily lost in the condemnation of the Irish attackers’ failure to turn Luke Marshall’s scything runs through the Scottish back line into tries, but Hogg played a part in those Irish errors.
He was there to help Sean Maitland in the tackling stakes, but, more subtly, his positional sense forced Marshall into one forward pass and pushed him wide on another occasion, away from the supporting Brian O’Driscoll.
That will not have gone unnoticed by Gatland, but it tends to be attacking moments which turn the heads of coaches and Hogg believes that he and Scotland have to have more possession and release the backs more often this week than against the Irish if they are to win and he is to outshine his opposite number. It is not lost on Hogg either that the winner this weekend will be sitting, at worst, just two points off Six Nations leaders England, who finish with a testing trip to Cardiff.
On his rivalry with Halfpenny, Hogg said: “You always want to get on up on your opposite number, but, at the end of the day, it’s Scotland versus Wales. Both teams are in good positions in the table and whoever wins will be genuine contenders.
“Leigh is one of the best full-backs in the world. He is up there with Israel Dagg and Rob Kearney. He is a fantastic player and has been a fantastic servant for Wales.”
Halfpenny rates Hogg, too, as does Kearney. After losing at Murrayfield for the first time in the championship, Kearney said this about the Scottish full-back. “He’s had a great start to the championship. A lot of people seem to be surprised by it, but I’m not because he has been Glasgow’s quality player for the last two years. He’s a bright spark of Scottish rugby and is a player who gives Glasgow and Scotland that crucial go-forward.
“It was very noticeable at Murrayfield how when he got the ball there was a change in the atmosphere, people were excited.
“I’d love to go on another Lions tour because it is fantastic to be a part of, and you want to have the best players who are on form in that environment, and Stuart and Leigh are definitely up there,” added Kearney.
“It’s going to be very competitive, but, if Stuart can continue his form against Wales and France, then there is no reason why he wouldn’t be well on the way to a first Lions tour.”
For Hogg, however, the focus is a different red jersey at present, the one he faces tomorrow in what will be his 14th cap.
His first came against the same nation, a Test debut at the Millennium Stadium in which he sparkled but was denied by a refereeing error what TV replays showed to be a good try.
“That was a very special occasion for me, but we got beat and I’m looking to play my part in a winning Scotland team this weekend. I think the referee owes me a try!” said Hogg.
“But Wales have some fantastic players. They like to play a wide game.
“When you have wingers like George North and Alex Cuthbert, and with a full-back like Leigh Halfpenny, then why not?
“Our defending will need to be spot-on and firing for the full 80 minutes.
“We’ll need to shut these boys down at source and not allow them to build up any kind of momentum. Hopefully we can stop them and make them go into hiding.
“As for me, I do wonder where the last year has gone, but I can’t rest on my laurels. I need to keep working hard and trying to be the best rugby player I can be.”
That is the attitude of a potential Lion but whether that honour comes this year or later may depend largely on which of tomorrow’s No 15s comes out on the winning side.