From set-to to skipper: Stuart Hogg’s journey to Scotland’s leading role

Stuart Hogg celebrates victory over  England at Murrayfield in February, 2018
Stuart Hogg celebrates victory over England at Murrayfield in February, 2018
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Five-and-a-half years after the relationship between coach Gregor Townsend and star player Stuart Hogg appeared beyond repair, the full-back has been named Scotland’s new captain.

Both men have since spoken about the rift which emerged as Townsend did not take kindly to the then youngster’s attitude and manoeuvrings for a move away from Glasgow to Ulster.

The air was cleared and Hogg went on to help Townsend’s Scotstoun side to a historic Pro14 title the following year and then scooped two successive Six Nations player-of-the-tournament awards.

“At one time I was really worried we might not work together as coach and player anymore,” said Townsend, right, of the player who left Glasgow last summer for a big-money move to English league leaders Exeter Chiefs.

“A lot of that was down to Stuart in the way he reacted the following season. He came in and was ultra-professional and determined to be the best 
player he could be.”

Hogg made the British and Irish Lions tours of 2013 as a youngster and 2017 but is still waiting for a Test in a red jersey after a facial injury in New Zealand. Townsend believes the player has clearly matured a lot in the last few years.

“Obviously I feel very grateful to coach someone like Stuart – and see him grow as a person,” he said.

“He’s a family man now, he’s taken on the challenge of going to a new club. And he’s really impressed the Exeter coaches with the homework he’s done, as well as how he’s played, and also how he gets the best out of others with the way he plays.

“If you look at his game from four or five years ago, his line-break ability, his massive kicks, that was all outstanding. But it’s now about how he puts others into space through a little pass, a little kick.

“He has a great understanding with his back three. If you’ve been watching any of our sessions, you’ll know that he’s the loudest player on 
the field.

“For a full-back, that’s a great thing, telling the frontline where they are defensively. But you see when we win a penalty, whether it’s a scrum 
penalty or around the contact area, he’s first in.

“He’s an energiser. And that’s a real attribute to have as a captain.”

Hogg became the ninth man since 1947 to captain the country from the full-back position in the summer of 2018 when he got a one-off chance in the 30-29 loss to United States when tour skipper Stuart McInally was injured.

He now gets the chance to make the role his for some time to come and Townsend has no concerns about the fact that those in the No 15 jersey are often viewed as deep-lying attackers who are a bit distant from the thick of the frontline action for the primary leadership role.

“That was certainly something we talked about. It is unusual. For some reason full-backs haven’t captained (Test teams too often) but I did have a full-back as my captain,” said Townsend, in reference to the legendary Gavin Hastings, who skippered his country 20 times and also the 1993 Lions.

“I played 13 [outside centre] and ten [stand-off] for Scotland when Gavin was captain and it was great to have the captain outside me giving me confidence to play,” said the Scotland coach.

“So I know the effect the captain can have on the players around him. We have to have other people who can speak to the ref at certain times.

“With penalties, full-backs will have time to come and chat to the ref. It might be around the scrum that Stuart is not going to be the person to speak to the ref but referees nowadays will speak to hookers, speak to scrum-halves, maybe someone in the back row if it’s around the contact or around the scrum. We just need to make sure we work that well with the players we have.”

Hogg replaces McInally, who Townsend admits may have found the captaincy too much of a burden. The Edinburgh hooker went into the World Cup in blistering form but was visibly knocked by that opening thumping by Ireland, his form slumped and he was left out of the decisive final pool match defeat by hosts Japan.

“It was a tough decision to make with Stuart not starting against Japan and not to be captain,” said Townsend. “But he and I had been meeting regularly during that period and he hadn’t been playing to his 
best.

“We felt that was because of the new responsibilities and pressures of being captain.

“The most important thing is that whoever is captain plays well and are able to play well.

“Stuart has been one of our best and most consistent players and trainers for the last two or three years and wasn’t able to get to that level during the World Cup.

“We want to make sure that doesn’t happen again and we think a different captain will enable him to focus on his game.

“He’s still a key leader. Him and Fraser Brown are very experienced players for us. I’ve met them both a few times since the World Cup and their contributions to how we have reviewed things and once we come into camp will be very valuable.”