In HIS final year of primary school, Stuart Hogg and the rest of his class were asked to think about what their main ambition in life was and then to write it down in the school yearbook for posterity.
Hogg thought long and hard before carefully penning in his best writing: “When I grow up, I want to be a professional rugby player.”
But it was that time of year when the Hawick Common Riding takes place so the young Hogg thought a little longer and a little harder. He scribbled over his first attempt and replaced it: “I want to be a professional jockey.” Listening to him speak last week, his dreams almost came true.
“When I first went to Glasgow I absolutely hated it,” recalls Hogg, the undoubted star of Scotland’s early Six Nations matches this season. “I had just turned 18, I was lonely and homesick. I only knew how to get to training, how to get to the David Lloyd centre and how to get back to the M8 [to go home]. For the first year that was all I knew. I was living on my own.
“I remember speaking to my dad after two weeks at Glasgow and thinking I don’t want to do this anymore. I came very close to chucking it. If I’d chucked it I would have been back home training as a jockey. I remember my dad saying that maybe I should give it a few more weeks so I lasted until Christmas and I began to enjoy it. The following year I was in a flat with [Glasgow team-mates] Henry Pyrgos, Alex Dunbar and Finlay Gillies and I had the best year of my life!
“I had ambitions to be a jockey until I played [Scotland] under-17s and I was told I had a chance of being in the [SRU] national academy.
“I’ve always had horses. I’ve always ridden horses. We live in town but the stables were close, just up the top of the hill.” Hogg indicates the general direction with a nod out of the window. “I used to work at Donald Whillans’ race yard until I moved to Edinburgh when I was 17. They have always been a key part of my life, horses.”
It was always going to be the one or the other, rugby or horses, horses or rugby.
Hogg may have been born in the Borders General Hospital, which is situated in Melrose, and father John feigns horror that the papers advertise this fact, but the boy is a product of Hawick just as surely as the cashmere and cloth in the Johnstons of Elgin mill where we met last week.
He is also the product of a rugby family. Dad played umpteen seasons for Hawick, his brother Graham has turned out for the Scotland sevens and yet his mum Margaret is the only one in the family with a Melrose Sevens winner’s medal, a fact she has been known to mention. Hogg arrived too late to see his dad play but the young boy watched his father referee all over the country, Aberdeen one week, Jed the next, adding to his growing collection of pilfered balls.
“I probably shouldn’t admit this but I used to borrow a lot of rugby balls without giving them back. I had a massive collection in my front garden,” confesses Hogg.
Hogg chooses to meet in Johnstons’ smart café, firstly because his father works in the mill, as did junior for the odd summer, and, secondly, because it should be quiet in the middle of the afternoon. Still, the interview is continually interrupted by a steady stream of well-wishers, friends and strangers alike, all of whom want a little piece of Scotland’s hottest sporting property. When we walk on to the factory floor, where Hogg used to tend a loom, we can’t move five yards without someone pumping his hand while sporting that “I’ve-just-won-the-lottery look”.
Scottish rugby needed a hero and, in Hogg, it seems to have found one who resonates with the wider rugby world in a way no other Scot has done since perhaps a young Simon Taylor came to the fore at the turn of the millennium.
With a Lions squad to be picked later this year, midway through the Calcutta Cup at Twickenham I got a text asking: “Who does Gatland leave out? Hogg? Halfpenny? Kearney?”
The question came from Ireland and the answer came the following weekend against Italy when the Scotland full-back scored what must surely be the try of the tournament, intercepting an Italian pass ten metres from his own try line and going the length of the pitch without a finger being laid upon him.
But what on earth was going through his head when he decided to gamble on the interception?
“I saw Greig [Laidlaw] pointing and I heard him shouting ‘go, go, go!’ which means move on to the next person. I think that, if I hadn’t seen or heard him, I would have tackled [Luciano] Orquera. A simple pass and they are under the sticks.
“I thought to myself, I’m really fortunate that that came off. If that hadn’t come off I could see another bollocking coming my way. Matt Taylor [Scotland’s defence coach] had a word with me after the game saying, maybe don’t do that again. He asked me to talk him through what went on in my head. I said I have absolutely no idea. I had a bit of a brain fart. Luckily, it came off.”
Hogg has long been destined for great things. He scored an amazing solo try for Scotland A against England Saxons and a rare hat-trick against Munster in the RaboDirect Pro12 for Glasgow at Limerick’s Musgrave Park in 2012.
He crossed the line on his Test debut (off the bench) against Wales last season, only to see it wrongly wiped off by referee Romain Poite, and scored on his first international start against France. So far this season, he has grabbed a touchdown in each of the two opening rounds of the championship and made Sean Maitland’s try against England with a scything run that sliced open one of the meanest defences in the game.
He is in the form of his life and he is in Warren Gatland’s thoughts but, if Hogg occasionally makes the game look easy, the route he has taken to where he is now was anything but. Guilty of occasional petulance if things are not going his way, a watershed moment arrived at the Under-20 World Championships in Italy in 2011 in the opening game against South Africa.
A spear tackle meant a spell in the sin bin. That was followed up by a performance that Hogg refers to as “an absolute nightmare” and a two-match ban.
That all made him reassess his situation.
“I learned a lot from that game and I thought that I really needed to concentrate on rugby now,” Hogg admits. “I got a bollocking off a couple of people, my dad included so, yeah, I learned a lot in that tournament. That changed my perspective towards rugby.”
In only his second start for Glasgow in 2011 Hogg dislocated his shoulder, which meant that it wasn’t until December of that same year that he eventually signed a full professional contract.
Hogg played well in last season’s Six Nations but the Scots were dismal. Then Scotland played well on their summer southern hemisphere tour but Hogg was poor, tired, jaded, trying too hard to force the game with every touch.
It didn’t help that he played against Samoa with a chipped bone in his ankle and the subsequent operation meant that he missed the start of the 2012-13 season. Such was the form of his great mate and rival Peter Murchie that the Scotland star was, more often than not, left kicking his heels on the Glasgow bench.
The man who had earned a long run in Glasgow’s No.15 shirt thanks to a Murchie injury early last season saw the tables turned and, such was his self-doubt, he admits to wondering if he would ever get back into the Glasgow line-up, never mind Scotland.
Hogg has already experienced more ups and downs that a crack cocaine junkie but that is part and parcel of the man. What makes him stand out from the crowd is not the fact that he is the perfect player, far from it, but he does have the confidence to back himself and, vitally, Hogg is not afraid to fail. He gets knocked down, he gets up again. After making a mistake, like running smack bang into Dan Cole at Twickenham, Hogg learns his lesson and tries something else next time.
He has already learned one important lesson. Now that he is grown up, he doesn’t want to be a jockey after all. “Looking back now, that would have been the biggest regret of my life,” says Scotland’s rising star.
Judging by the smile on every face in Hawick, he is not the only one who would have regretted the decision.