IN THE amateur era, Scotland acquired the happy habit of doing rather well the year after a Lions tour.
The Grand Slams of 1984 and 1990 came in the wake of trips by the select side to New Zealand and Australia, the theory being that the Scots players on tour had come to the realisation that they were the equals, at least, of their colleagues from England, Ireland and Wales.
Given our scant representation on last year’s victorious series in Australia – Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland and Richie Gray were in the original party, while Ryan Grant was called up as a replacement for the injured Welsh prop Gethin Jenkins – such a realisation in this year’s Six Nations Championships looks unlikely. But Hogg, for one, is convinced that his team-mates should not feel inferior to their opponents in any case.
Only four Scots went, but others would have held their own if selected, believes the full-back, who at 20 was the youngest member of the Lions squad. That belief is vindicated by, among other things, the fact that Gray has been unable to claim a place in the starting line-up to face Ireland tomorrow.
“There could have been a lot more Scottish boys who went in the summer, I’ve no doubt about that,” Hogg said. “A lot of these guys here are the equal or the better of those players who toured.
“Listen, I still pinch myself when I stand in the Scotland huddle. We have the players here who are more than capable of doing the job, and I for one am very excited about the Six Nations campaign. The Scottish boys could have a point to prove in terms of being left out, but I think we’re past that now. It’s about concentrating on the job in hand for Scotland and what’s best for Scotland.”
Another traditional belief about the season following the Lions is that tourists experience a hangover through having had little chance of a break over the summer. That will not be the case with Hogg, who is just back from an injury-enforced break, and who is eager to return to the Scotland ranks after missing the Autumn Tests.
“I’m chuffed to bits to be back involved. I’ve not played for Scotland since the last Six Nations campaign, so in that sense it’s been a long old year. I really missed being involved last Autumn, but I was injured so there was nothing I could do.
“I got injured against Leinster in my second game of the season. It was a fractured scaphoid and I ended up needing surgery on my wrist and I was out for seven or eight weeks as a result. So I suppose when people talk about a hangover from the Lions tour it doesn’t really affect me, because I had that break.
“I was feeling fresh and fit at the start of the season, but injuries happen. Maybe the seven weeks I had off will benefit me as the season goes on. Since I made my Scotland debut the rugby has been pretty full on. I haven’t had many breaks, but that’s fine. The challenge is to get back playing at the level I was last year and in the summer. It was a bit annoying hearing people question whether I would cope because of being a Lion. I’ve just got to keep working hard.
“The summer was an unbelievable experience and it’s something I will always look back on. I’ve been asked has it made me a better player and I’ve replied by saying yes, I think it has. I think my understanding of the game has improved, I feel a lot more experienced - I feel I could make a call here or there. Hopefully it has made me an all-round better player.
“I just got a bit annoyed with people asking whether I could cope with the added pressure of being a Lion. People said ‘He’s got to perform’, but I know that myself. It’s in the past. I’m looking forward to the challenge with Scotland.”
There could be a double challenge for Hogg in Dublin, as Johnson has him pencilled in to move up from full-back to stand-off late in the game. He wore the No 10 jersey with distinction in Australia, being named the man of the match when playing in that position in the midweek win over a combined New South Wales-Queensland Country side. Getting the better of the Irish defence will be a tougher task, but Hogg will have no qualms about making the move.
“I have no problem if I’m asked to move to ten. Coming into camp I had a conversation with Scott Johnson: he said I could play ten at some point and I’m happy to step up if need be. I have experienced players around me to guide me through it.”
Not that Hogg will exactly be idle until that move. Ireland will aim to get off to a flying start, and an aerial bombardment of the full-back is sure to be one of their tactics.
“Ireland kick the ball a lot and they have people like Rob Kearney chasing it,” Hogg added. “I’m happy to take the high balls. As long as I take the first one I’ll be all right.”