GLASGOW’S new British and Irish Lion Stuart Hogg believes he is returning to the club a better and more confident player for his tour experience, but insists that he will not now be knocking on the coach’s door asking for a move to the No 10 jersey.
The 21-year-old played the most minutes of any Lion on this year’s successful tour to Australia but he was surprisingly left out of the Test squad, despite showing that he could cover the stand-off berth as well as full-back.
He rekindled some of the form that made Hawick supporters salivate when he wore the ten jersey in his teenage days, but he has knocked on the head the prospect of him returning there with Glasgow this season.
“It is up to the coaches; nothing to do with me,” he said. “I knew I was going to play at ten at some point and it was great to have a run there.
“I got into the Scotland team playing full-back and I got into the Lions playing 15 so, well, I prefer 15. There are three tens here [at Glasgow] – Duncan [Weir], Jacko [Ruaridh Jackson] and Scotty [Wight] and I think they will play the three of them before me.”
It was a big call of Warren Gatland to thrust the young Scot into a stand-off berth at Lions level, a role he had never filled in the professional game, but Hogg’s ability to cover that role was a key reason why he was chosen for the Lions tour.
He started well after good displays at full-back and a good run-out at stand-off and comfortable win over the New South Wales-Queensland Combined Country XV, but was then thrust into the fire with a starting berth against the Brumbies, which was always going to be the toughest challenge on the tour outside the Tests.
And to face the Brumbies, who play in the Super Rugby final this weekend, Hogg was given a bizarre backline of ageing and inexperienced players hastily flown out to Australia. Unsurprisingly, the Lions suffered their first tour loss and Hogg’s hopes of a Test bench spot evaporated.
“The combined country team, with all due respect, was not the greatest and I wanted a greater challenge of playing against the Brumbies,” he said, “but it went badly. When you look at it, five of the seven players in the back line were playing their first game.
“Playing ten is tough enough, but to have guys who weren’t sure of the moves made things even tougher. Shane Williams got there the day before the game, and [Billy] Twelvetrees, Christian Wade and Brad Barritt were there three days before the game.
“I didn’t have much to do with Gatland, it was more Rob Howley who was in charge of the backs, and he said I did my part well at ten and I needed to take it on the chin that it was not a great night. But, potentially, that [Brumbies game] might have [cost him a Test place]. These things happen.
“Making the Lions was a massive target of mine and it was great to be part of it. If I was being a wee bit picky, I was a bit disappointed not to be involved in any of the Tests, but at the end of the day I was sitting behind the man of the series [Leigh Halfpenny]. That takes the pressure off a bit.
“And I learned a lot. The training was short and sharp. You can say you are professional but everything stepped up another ten per cent out there. For example, boys were stretching after training. I was never one for that but, at that stage of the season, that is exactly what you should do.
“And in terms of rugby, I picked up bits and pieces of playing ten and 15. I was disappointed with myself in the first couple of weeks. I was quiet and I let the likes of Halfpenny and [Rob] Kearney run at 15 and let [Owen] Farrell run at ten all the time while [Jonny] Sexton wasn’t there. Maybe I should have jumped in then now and again and showed I was up to that standard.
“But I will learn from that. I have definitely come back a better player. I was continuing the form I hit at the end of last season and now I’m glad to be back in training and, hopefully, I can hit the ground running again this season.”
He believes he learned a lot also from Neil Jenkins, who improved his goal-kicking, and has a permanent reminder of his Lions involvement, having been allowed to bring home the toy Lion he, as the squad’s youngest player, was charged with carrying to training every day and to the games, and which was always left at the side of the pitch when the team played. It currently occupies the bed in his spare room, Hogg having managed to avoid the tradition of handing it over to the first team that beat the Lions.
“It is in my house and I will keep it. I was not giving it to the Brumbies!” he said, laughing. “It is a great thing and I am happy to keep it. I dragged it here, there and everywhere. The players, and even the communications team, kept stealing it and hiding it, so I was made to work a bit. So it’s a nice thing to have. It’s never going on eBay. I’ll never get rid of it.”