GLASGOW’S hopes of garnering the support of the “neutral” natives in Saturday evening’s Guinness Pro12 final at the Kingspan Stadium against Munster were not helped by inflicting a painful late defeat on the Ulstermen in last week’s Scotstoun semi-final.
The furore over what some, including Ulster skipper Rory Best, deemed to have been a hint of “simulation” by Niko Matawalu in winning the penalty which ultimately led to DTH van der Merwe’s match-levelling try, reduced those hopes further.
However, if the Northern Irish in the crowd were looking for a reason to lend their support to the Scottish side rather than their provincial rivals, then the fact they have in their ranks a relative of the Belfast Boy himself isn’t a bad one.
Full-back Stuart Hogg discovered a few years ago, when his father was researching the family tree, that he is distantly related to football legend George Best. That has opened up a whole new family for him in Northern Ireland and he is sure that they will be behind him on Saturday.
He explained: “They are great family to have and looking forward to it. It’s all calmed down a bit since the discovery but we see each other a lot now and it’ll be great to catch up again.
“Dad always wanted to find his family and, through being capped, it came about. We’ve been making up for lost time, I assure you. And the George Best connection – I’m taking it.”
At times I just fell out of love with the game last year but I enjoy it a lot better right nowStuart Hogg
Last year’s Pro12 play-offs were a difficult period for the player as he was left out of both the semi-final and final. After coming back from a suspension following his red card in the Six Nations hammering in Wales, speculation about a potential move to Ulster emerged and he found himself out in the cold. That is in the past now, a new contract was penned in November, and the 22-year-old is now looking to make up for the disappointment of 2014.
“It killed me,” said Hogg, when asked about 12 months ago. “We got ourselves into such a great position last year and not being involved in the two biggest games, I was very disappointed.
“But there were reasons for that, I’ve learned and I’ve moved on from that. Now it’s great to be part of the semi at the weekend and, hopefully, get selected for this weekend as well.
“A few things happened that I learned from and am hoping to move on from. Everything for me is concentrating on the weekend.”
He may still be in his early 20s but, with 31 Scotland caps, a Lions tour and four years of Pro12 rugby behind him, Hogg is a seasoned professional now and feels he has matured.
“I’m a lot calmer than I used to be,” he said. “I enjoy it more. At times I just fell out of love with the game last year but I enjoy it a lot better right now.
“Glasgow’s a great place to be and I get on with everyone so it’s great. It’s so much easier when you’re in love with the game and getting enjoyment out of it.
“Being young and inexperienced, at times, emotions play a massive part but it’s how you channel those emotions and use them in a positive manner.”
Channeling emotion will be crucial on Saturday evening and Hogg is anticipating the final being a great occasion.
“Some people say it’s a bad thing [having the final at a neutral venue] but for me, we don’t have the pressure of playing at home, the exact same for both teams.
“It’s a fantastic stadium to play at and I’m looking forward to it, as are all the boys. It’s going to be a great occasion and, hopefully, it’s one we’ll remember for the right reasons.
“We have targeted being the first Scottish team to win a title and worked incredibly hard all season to get where we are.
“It’s going to take one more game and a big effort to get the trophy. We’ve got a few guys leaving and we’d like a win for them as well.”
Until that late breakthrough at Scotstoun last Friday, things hadn’t quite clicked for the Glasgow backs, with passes going astray and nerves obvious. But Hogg is confident things will come together on Saturday.
He said: “We talk a lot about being connected as a backline and carve up teams there. A few times we’ve found ourselves very much as individuals and maybe that’s something that doesn’t work for us. But it’s something we work very hard at.
“To be fair, we didn’t have a lot of ball last week in an area we could really play in, and at times we maybe got a little bit frustrated that it wasn’t coming as much as we’d like.”
Munster are also putting the finishing touches to their preparations. Coach Anthony Foley said yesterday: “Every final takes a life of its own and we need to make sure we prepare for the opposition and not the occasion.
“They are a very dangerous side and managed to take the momentum from Ulster in the second half last weekend and get the win. For us against them, it has been up and down – they managed to beat us in the semi last year and overturn our good start against them over there [in December], but then we managed to get one back in Cork the last time out.”