Scotland v Italy: Stuart Hogg turns support player so others can grab the glory

It wasn’t going to be like a hod-carrier suddenly picking up an orchestra conductor’s baton. It wasn’t going to be like a centre-forward in a football team being pressed into service as an emergency goalkeeper.

Stand off for the day Stuart Hogg is in the thick of the midfield action with this tackle on Italy's Mattia Bellini

It wasn’t going to be like you, dear reader, no disrespect intended, answering Nasa’s call for a rocket scientist. So what was it going to be like, Stuart Hogg at stand off?

The answer wasn’t quick in coming. The full back, pushed forward to 10 in the absence of Finn Russell through concussion, brought his usual star billing, this time with added intrigue, but spent the first quarter feeling his way and it wasn’t until the 26th minute that we saw a classic Hoggy buzzbomb break.

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By then the Scots had scored three tries and a fourth would arrive two minutes later from Huw Jones who’d been the most eye-catching of the home players until that juncture, provoking Azzurri anxiety every time he collected the ball.

Huw Jones made the most of his chance to start with some sparkling runs topped off by his 12th try for Scotland

Though stand off wasn’t completely alien to Hogg and indeed he’d deputised for Russell when the latter came off the previous week, the Scotland captain had admitted before the game that he was nervous about the switch.

Nervous, but excited. That went for all of us, mate. What would we gain but also, what might we lose? He wasn’t going to be able to build up a head of steam, collecting a kick shelled deep and really motoring by the time he confronted anyone who fancied trying to be Wile E. Coyote halting the Road Runner.

But, even with less prairie ahead of him we fancied he might still attempt more breaks than Russell who’s no slouch in that department but, if push comes to shove and the pushers and shovers are about to jump on him, may prefer to pass, rarely firing off one that could be called routine.

A gamble, then, but a calculated one, and with a low degree of risk given it was only Italy? On you go with that theory. Are you forgetting those seven victories including two at Murrayfield? Welcoming, big-hearted Scotland gave Italy a Six Nations debut win in 2000 and we’ve been obligingly blundering every few years.

Though the visitors scored first this wasn’t looking like one of those years.

They were already missing too many tackles before Federico Mori was sin-binned. But if it was “only Italy”, there was still the nagging suspicion that up against them yesterday were “typical Scotland”. A team who climb a mountain and tumble down the other side - win at Twickenham and lose their next two games at home.

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Absolutely no disrespect to Ireland and Wales, but could a full Murrayfield in lusty voice have made a difference to these outcomes? Instead of losing so late in both matches, could the crowd have roared Scotland home? We’ll never know the answer to that one but it didn’t seem a good idea to have this game precariously tight in the final minutes so Dave Cherry, Duhan van der Merwe and Darcy Graham wasted no time going over for tries before Jones, such a dynamic runner, secured a first-half bonus point with his counter.

Hogg was involved twice in the lead-up, keeping the ball moving but no more, content for others to grab the glory on this occasions. His role had caused some surprise. When one of your two name-above-the-titles guys is among the best in his position on the planet, why uproot him? Well, it’s a team game and the other name-above-the-titles guy - Russell - understood this, too, as he brought on the water during a break in the action.

Hogg didn’t have exclusive rights to the role of Mr Versatile. Next to him at scrum half was Scott Steele, allowed to play at 9 after stints in the back row and on the wing. He was sparky and slick and none more so than during some early second-half pressure which led to Italy’s second yellow card, for Sebastian Negri da Ollegio. Then from the resultant penalty Steele grabbed his first Scotland try.

That signalled the first of the substitutions and Hogg was able to return to full back. Jaco Van der Walt, the new stand off, was quickly on the rampage but if Hogg had been thinking about a breather - of course he hadn’t - then Monte Ioane seemed intent on disabusing him of such a notion with what was almost a spear-tackle. Ioane had produced a bone-juddering block on Graham in the first half but this one was illegal and he was yellow-carded.

Hogg was okay. So okay indeed that when he next joined the attack he contrived a between-the-legs spin-pass to almost put Van der Merwe into the corner. Surely he must have glanced towards Finn the water-carrier, seeking the usual stand off’s approval.

Italy almost temporarily went down to 12 men with Michele Lamaro fortunate not to be punished for the sort of shoulder barge which did for Zander Fagerson against Wales. But they couldn’t stop the tries, Sam Johnson going over before Van der Merwe claimed his second. This was Scotland’s biggest-ever win against Italy and their biggest-ever margin of victory in the Six Nations - but perhaps ultimately the Scots kind to their opponents, who seemed thoroughly dejected long before the end.

Hogg at full back where he’s at his most lethal might have brought them ever more misery, and helped rack up an even bigger score. Denied opportunities to open his legs and show his class, he probably sprinted all the way back to the team hotel.

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