AMID the undeniable disappointment of Twickenham last Saturday were a couple of bright spots.
Understandably overlooked in the wake of that 38-18 defeat, they nonetheless provide some grounds for optimism as Scotland prepare for their first home game of this season’s RBS Six Nations Championship against Italy tomorrow.
For a start, the mere fact that the team scored two tries was encouraging, even in a match where England scored four. It was not that long ago that Scotland could hardly score two tries in the whole campaign, never mind a single match.
Then there was the fact that the first was scored by Sean Maitland following a kick return by Stuart Hogg, while the second was scored by Hogg himself. Two members of the back three on the scoresheet at the end of long-range counter-attacks: that, too, was something you would not see very often just a few seasons ago.
Add in the undoubted attacking prowess of Tim Visser, the third member of that back three, and it becomes clear that Scotland are now a more potent threat to defences. Of course there are defects elsewhere to be addressed, but the full-back and wingers have already made a difference. And that is before they have even played together as a trio at home.
Interim coach Scott Johnson has made only two changes to the team from last week to this, both in the pack and both enforced by injury. Hogg, for one, is glad that the backs have been given another chance en masse to show what they can do.
“Obviously I’m happy that the back three are staying the same,” the Glasgow Warriors No 15 said. “It’s good to play with Sean and Tim, so hopefully this week we can get a lot of ball.
“They’re both absolutely rapid, so it’s a case of getting these boys the ball. Hopefully the gameplan might change a little bit this weekend. Hopefully the contact area will be a lot better and we can get more momentum going forward.
“A couple of times England kicked loosely to us and we made them pay. Hopefully Italy will do the same this weekend.
“It’s just a case, as I say, of getting these boys the ball. If that means they come hunting for it as well...it’s exciting when these boys get the ball.”
After enjoying such a big impact last season, when he made his international debut as a replacement for Max Evans against Wales, Hogg had a modest start to this campaign and after injury lost his Glasgow place to Peter Murchie. Now, though, he is back close to his best.
“Fingers crossed, I can continue the wee bit of form that I’ve got going. I’ll just keep working away at it.
“I think I wasn’t getting the chance to show the best of my ability because Peter was playing so well. You can’t take a boy out of the team that’s on form, so credit to Peter, he kept me out. He’s worked hard on his game. He’s been Glasgow’s most consistent player this season.
“I just have to work away harder than I’ve ever done. When I got my chance I kind of forced things. I didn’t have the best start to the season, being out through injury. It’s good that I’m back in the 15 jersey now.
“It’s tough when you’re sitting on the bench. It’s great to be selected in the squad, but I just wanted to play rugby at that stage.
“I was getting 20, 25 mins off the bench. I couldn’t get into any form. Sometimes I’d touch the ball two or three times in that time.”
With 11 caps, Hogg has the most Test experience out of the back three, but at 20 he is still a relative novice. Even so, he has already become more composed on rugby’s biggest stage.
“International rugby’s the quickest and most physical game you can be involved in,” he added. “You have to be a mature player nowadays.
“Last year I was at maybe immature stages – I was throwing my hands up in the air asking for penalties and stuff. This year I feel a lot more mature.”
This time last year, as Hogg prepared to make his first start for Scotland against France, he revealed that he had found out he was distantly related to George Best through a grandmother from Northern Ireland. Since then the two families have got to know each other a bit better.
“It’s on my dad’s side, and my dad’s always been wanting to find out his family history,” he explained. “His parents died relatively young, so he never really found out.
“But because of me playing international rugby it’s a small world when you consider things like this open up. It’s great that my dad’s found out all these things.
“It’s quite scary when you hear all the stories they’ve been telling me. One of his relatives is a lady who looks pretty much like my dad, so it’s a shame for her.
“The family are regular visitors across to Ireland. I’m the only one who’s not been across yet and it’s all because of me that they know them. I’m hoping at the back end of the season I’ll be able to jump across and see what they’re saying.
“I’ve met a few of them who have come across. They’re daft, to be honest.
“I’ve seen him [Best] on video. Me and my brother have a wee bit of banter about this saying I got the talent side, he got the alcohol side. He takes it on the chin. It’s a good laugh.”