If anyone can offer an insight into today’s Champions Cup tie between Edinburgh Rugby and Newcastle Falcons then Allister Hogg is surely that man. Long before his namesake Stuart starting hogging the headlines, Allister was a sliced bread breakaway for Scotland. First capped at 21, he went on to make 48 international appearances. He is a two-club man, playing 93 league matches for Edinburgh before moving south of the Border in 2009 and turning out well over 100 times for the Falcons in all competitions.
After a professional career lasting from the age of 19 to 35, he is now part of the wealth management division of Barclays Bank, should you be lucky enough to need his services.
Hogg was lucky to end his rugby career on a high last May as the Falcons enjoyed their best finish this millennium under the watchful eye of Dean Richards, an old Leicester colleague of Richard Cockerill.
“He took a while to get things going,” says Hogg of the Falcons’ coach. “It started two years ago when we finished the highest [eighth] we had done in years and then last season we got to the semi-finals, the highest we have ever finished in the premiership since winning it in 1997.
“I think he’s had more money to invest in the squad and there is a young crop of players who have started to mature and are more and more experienced and have learned to win games over the last two seasons. We turned the corner and started to win the tight matches.”
The joke has been made, and more than once, but Pool C looks like it is upside down. The twin French giants are struggling to make their money talk on the field. Toulon and Montpellier have between them won two matches to date, both are struggling for form in the Top 14 and whoever wins today’s cross-Border tie will be in pole position to top the group.
After fielding a second string last weekend at Murrayfield, Richards has reverted to what looks like the strongest side available to him. Scotland international John Hardie starts on one flank with England breakaway Mark Wilson on the other and Nemani Nagusa up against a fellow Fijian, Edinburgh’s Viliame Mata, at No.8.
Toby Flood returns to the No.10 jersey with the strike power of Vereniki Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti outside him. This team is light years from the one that rolled over in the second half at Murrayfield. They may be struggling at the bottom of the Premiership but they are just four points below Bath in sixth place and Hogg explains Newcastle’s thinking.
“The Premiership for Newcastle is the bread and butter,” explains the Scot. “If they are not there they are not anywhere. It will all be about trying to get up that league and this match will be see as a warm-up for Gloucester the following week. But that said, it is at home, there is a big crowd coming along and I think it will be a different performance to what it was last weekend.
“I think Edinburgh are a little like Newcastle,” he continues, “they have a very good 20 players but when they start picking up a few injuries or lose the internationals, that is when you struggle.
“Edinburgh are struggling in the league because they lost to the Dragons away. It is the smaller games that they need to win to kick them up the table.
“That is what Glasgow are very good at. They still have a core [of players] who can get results even when the Six Nations is on and that is what we did last year.
“Winning breeds winning. I forget the exact statistic but I think the Falcons won the most matches by three points or fewer last season. A lot of games were close but we just edged them.”
Hogg jokes that he taught international No.8 Wilson, a revelation for England in the autumn series, everything he knows. Wilson may never match Mata’s handling skills but the breakaway is an uncompromising player in the mould of his hang-dog coach Richards.
“He started the exact same year that I joined Newcastle and he’s performed like that the last few years,” says Hogg on Wilson. “Because he’s played at Newcastle he has not enjoyed the same limelight as he would if he’d been at Saracens or Leicester.
“He started to knock at the door a couple of years ago, he got his first cap against the Babas and then with injuries Eddie Jones gave him a couple of starts. He is not going to do anything flash but he is consistent.
“He is not the type to get man-of-the-match one week and lose you the match the next; 99 times out of 100 he is going to do the right thing. He is one of those players who almost needs to believe in how good he really is.”
Meanwhile, Scotland hopeful Gary Graham starts on the Falcons’ bench today but he will be sure to feature at some point in proceedings, especially if things are tight coming down the home stretch, which is exactly what Hogg anticipates.
“I think it will be close and I think Newcastle will just edge it,” predicts the man who played for them just months ago. “They were ahead at halftime last week and they have some players back.”