The coach is looking to his young charges – captained from the flank by Watsonians’ Conor Boyle, despite being only 19 – to peform at pace in the Six Nations opener. But Hogg doesn’t want to ape Gregor Townsend’s “fastest rugby on the planet” (even Townsend is edging quietly away from it) and has asked his squad to adopt instead a pithy motto –SAS.
Speed and smart is what it stands for and that is what Hogg, appointed U20 head coach in October, is anticipating tomorrow night, rather than the headless stuff that the senior side produced in Cardiff last season.
“The way we want to play the game is very much the Scottish style, at tempo and at speed,” said Hogg. “It is quite evident to me, after coming back home, that there is a technical blueprint Scottish Rugby have put in place. The players are very comfortable with the ball in hand, playing at that pace.
“We want to play at speed, but we also understand that speed doesn’t apply across the game through the full 80 minutes of the game, so we’ve got to be smart when the game dictates, whether that is in terms of field position, the momentum of the game or the scoreboard and that’s something we are trying to educate the players on.”
It’s a cosmopolitan squad. Ewan Johnson hails from Racing 92 academy team and Kwagga Van Niekirk from South Africa, courtesy of a Scottish grandfather. Closer to home, Roan Frostwick (Currie Chieftains) and Ross Thompson (Glasgow Hawks) will be expected to pull the tactical strings at half-back. Hogg expects the Scots to be tested in the set-piece, as is usual, but the team boast two powerful wingers in the Heriots’ duo, Jack Blain and Rory McMichael, while Olli Smith, of Ayr, gets the nod at full-back over Rufus McLean, who starts on the bench.
Smith has struggled for meaningful game time with Ayr which does raise the issue of how well prepared these young players are for international age-grade rugby?
“That’s a challenge for a lot of these young men, to get a competitive level of rugby which challenges them week in and week out, so that they learn quicker and faster,” Hogg said when put on the spot.
“Historically, when young men get pushed in alongside Test players, then they learn quickly. They might struggle in the short term but their learning level accelerates really fast, so that’s the challenge for us as a union, to find a competition, an environment, that accelerates that learning for young players. “The academies are great and fulfil a purpose, but where do they get that challenging rugby that stretches them week-in and week-out?”
The answer should be Super Six but, if Smith can’t command a starting spot for Ayr, he is unlikely to do so for the Super Six version of the club.
The Scots will ape the senior side in playing at pace and Hogg refers to the “template” for Scottish rugby, although that is a double-edged sword if adopted wholesale, leaving little room for diversity of tactics or even of opinion.
However, it does mean that all the young players are on the same page, which is priceless for a coach with limited time to whip them into shape.
“They want to play in a certain way. They want to play at a high tempo, they want to play with ball in hand and the players are all comfortable in doing that,” says Hogg. “You actually start from a really strong base because you start with a group of players that want to play that way, that buy into that philosophy, they have the skillset to deliver that. Now the challenge is to take them over a relatively short period and galvanise that into a winning formula.
“That is clearly a challenge, at age grade level or Test level.
“It’s a really good strong, solid group of people. I have been impressed at the way they have conducted themselves in the environment and I am really looking forward to Friday night to see how they perform.”