SUCCESS came swiftly to Stuart Hogg. Learning to deal with his team’s lack of success has been a more lengthy process.
On his first Scotland start as a 19-year-old – in 2012 against France, the team he will face again tomorrow – Hogg took all of eight minutes to score a try. He had already shown immense promise as a club player with Hawick: here was a sign that he could cut it at the highest level.
Two years on, and now with 18 caps to his name, Hogg remains one of the few players available to national coach Scott Johnson with the ability to turn a game around. In addition to his own individual vision, he is now, he says, more effectively integrated into the team.
But there have been times over those two past seasons, as Scotland have struggled to put a decent attacking game together, when that integration has appeared misdirected. When supporters have cried out for the rest of the team to fit in around the likes of Hogg rather than the other way round. Admittedly, it is difficult to find the right balance between gifted individuals and the less accomplished majority. That was the problem, for example, in the Gregor Townsend years, when the stand-off-cum-centre would often be several steps ahead of his team-mates both mentally and physically.
If he persisted in doing what came naturally to him, Townsend would often be dispossessed. If he slowed down in order to fit in, he was effectively annulling his own talent.
The solution to such a problem may be for the player in question to develop an understanding of when to strike out on his own, and when to take the more conservative option and seek safety in numbers instead. That, at least, is how Hogg sees it.
“I think I’ve matured as a player – maybe not as a person,” he said. “No, I’ve matured as a player and I’ve learned a hell of a lot along the way. It’s hard to believe that [first start] was two years ago already. It’s all about enjoying my rugby and I’ve done that in the last couple of years.
“I do kind of pinch myself a little bit. I just have to get on with my job and help the team perform well. I want to do my best to hopefully get a win in a Scotland jersey.
“Maturing as a player is all about taking the chances when they’re on offer. If you look at the next passage of play after my try two years ago, I think the next time I had the ball I ran into touch. I was going for another try there.
“It’s all about being mature in the situation - not about scoring every time you get the ball. Your break might lead to somebody else scoring. My try was just a run in at the end of the day - Jonesy [Lee Jones] and Greig [Laidlaw] made the try for me.
“Ever since then it’s been harder. Less teams kick to me. When I do get the ball it’s about doing what’s best for the team and not for myself.
“Scoring in the eighth minute was amazing – as a kid you dream of playing for Scotland, and to make that debut was pretty amazing. It was a good day in terms of scoring a try, but ultimately we didn’t get the result we wanted.”
The first two games in this season’s Six Nations, the defeats by Ireland and England, were the sort of uninspired showings that can lead to team-mates blaming each other. By contrast, the subsequent win over Italy has bred unity within the Scotland squad and encouraged them to believe there is more to come.
“It was a great feeling against the Italians and it’s a feeling we want to remember - because we want that feeling after every game,” Hogg added. “We’re in a good place just now.”
The arrival of the French on Saturday is welcomed by the full-back, not only because it brings back fond memories of the same fixture two years ago. His game is probably closer to their style of play than to that of any other major rugby nation, and it was that style which inspired him as a teenage player making his way in the game.
“Freestyle and do what they want – that’s me to a certain extent. I stick to the structure as much as I can, but as soon as there’s a chance to go on a little run I’ll probably take it on.
“We can analyse the French and say what they’re capable of, but Johnno is basically saying we can’t predict what’s going to happen. That’s the French. We’ll just have to be on the ball and expect the unexpected. They’re capable of anything, so we need to be switched on from the start.
“It’s a massive challenge both personally and collectively. I for one am excited for this game - it’s an opportunity for us to express ourselves and show what we’re about. We’re not going to be world-beaters by beating the Italians and possibly the French, but we’ve started going in the right direction.”