STUART Hogg could provide the answer to Scotland’s long-standing problems at stand-off, the country’s greatest ever Lion suggested last night.
Andy Irvine, who scored a record 274 points for the British and Irish Lions on three tours in the 1970s and 1980s, described Hogg’s performance at stand-off for the Lions this week as “exceptional”.
Irvine, who is managing the 2013 Lions in Australia, warned that the 20-year-old from Hawick was not quite the finished article just yet. But the former Scottish full-back said Hogg had the talent to solve Scotland’s problems behind the scrum for years to come.
Irvine also praised Sean Maitland for the way he took over the role of full-back for the Lions this week, moving over from his usual Scotland position on the wing. Irvine said that the immediate future for the third of Scotland’s initial Lions’ selections, Richie Gray, however, remains uncertain because his shoulder injury looks likely to deprive him of a last chance to push for Test selection against the Brumbies in Canberra on Tuesday next week.
Asked whether Gray would make the Test team, Irvine said: “Sadly Richie Gray is carrying an injury so I don’t think Richie will be able to play on Tuesday. I am not sure but there is an element of doubt so Richie has a difficulty there.”
And although he said he would have liked to see more Scots in Australia, the Lions manager argued that the benefits that Scotland’s four Lions gain from the tour would rub off on the whole Scotland squad for years to come.
Lions coach Warren Gatland moved Hogg from his usual position at full-back to stand-off and gave him the full 80 minutes in that position against Combined NSW/Queensland Country XV on Tuesday night. The Lions racked up ten tries in that game without conceding a point and many of the scores came from slick handling moves started by Hogg who regularly took the ball flat and close to the gainline before releasing his centres at speed. And, with Scotland apparently no nearer to settling on a long-term candidate at stand-off, Irvine is aware the clamour for Hogg to be installed in the No 10 shirt is growing by the day. Irvine said: “I’ve always felt Stuart Hogg had great potential at No 10 and it would be really interesting to see what Scotland do with him. He could easily play ten for Scotland. He could play ten, he could play 15, he could play 13. He is a very versatile, talented lad with bags of pace.”
But the Lions manager added: “Some people are getting carried away, saying he is the next John Rutherford. That’s a wee bit premature because we have to be realistic and he also has to perform against much tougher opposition (than on Tuesday) but for a youngster to come in and to play the way he did, his lines of running, the accuracy of his passing, I thought were exceptional.”
Irvine believes the New Zealand-born Maitland has also impressed on tour with the Lions. “It is similar with Sean Maitland, I always thought he had bags of potential. Sean and Stuart didn’t get many opportunities in the Six Nations but now playing in the very best of company, they have had the opportunity to thrive and I am delighted to see how they have taken that chance.”
Irvine warned, though, that although both players had impressed on tour, they both faced very tough jobs in getting into the all-important first Test team against Australia next weekend.
He said: “Stuart and Sean are in with a chance. Stuart obviously is in a very competitive situation because he is up against (Wales full-back) Leigh Halfpenny who is, quite simply, one of the best players on the planet just now, not only for his goal kicking but for his overall playing so Stuart has a very tough competition there. It’s not to say it is impossible. I would guess that both Sean and Stuart will certainly have raised the eyebrows of the coaches.”
Irvine made it clear he was angry with the decision of Western Force to keep back some of their top players from their match with the Lions early in the tour and warned that, because of weakened opposition, the Lions were in danger of being “undercooked” for the first Test. He said: “We were disappointed that the Force took the view that they had a big game the following week and they wanted to rest some of their top players. I think that is, quite frankly, a disappointment to us. We would far rather have played them at full strength. From our point of view it is a problem because we do not want to go into the Test series undercooked.”
But Irvine was very positive about the effect that the Lions tour would have on the Scotland team in the long run. He said: “These guys will go back completely different players. They will have learned a huge amount and they will take that back and pass on that wealth of information and experience to the Scottish lads. I look back to my situation. In 1974, when I came back to Scotland, the next ten years we based most of our back play on what I learned in ’74. Eighty per cent of the moves we did I got from Phil Bennett and Gareth Edwards and JPR Williams and, thankfully because we had fairly talented players in those days, Jim Renwick, Bruce Hay, John Rutherford, they were good enough to implement what had been learned on Lions tours.
“Never, ever underestimate what these players are learning. I’ve spoken to Stuart and to Richie and they’ve both said the tour has been an eye opener, the training methods, understanding of the game and playing at such a high level of company because it brings the best out of you when you’re playing with guys of that calibre. I’d love to see many more Scots because they’d benefit hugely but we also have to be realistic, the competition for places is really fierce and the two or three other Scots lads that came close to selection, they only missed out because they were up against absolutely world-class players.”
Meanwhile, Graham Rowntree has revealed the intense detail that is underpinning the Lions’ Test team selection for next week’s series opener against Australia in Brisbane. The Lions play their penultimate warm-up game today before tackling the Wallabies, with New South Wales Waratahs providing the opposition at Allianz Stadium.
Asked if the selection process had been ongoing since the tour opener against the Barbarians in Hong Kong two weeks ago, Lions assistant coach Rowntree said: “We have been doing that since the very first training session at the Vale of Glamorgan (last month). We watch how the guys are in the environment, who the diligent ones are, watching the computer, who are the ones learning the calls. We watch training videos back, see how the body language is. We are watching them 24/7.”