The selection of Stuart Hogg as Scotland captain for the first time is a testament to how much the Glasgow full-back has matured over the past few seasons, Gregor Townsend said yesterday after naming his team to play the United States here in Houston on Saturday.
It is an adventurous selection that reflects the nature of the new skipper as well as that of the head coach himself. There are two new caps in George Horne and Matt Fagerson, another five first starts – Jamie Bhatti, George Turner, Lewis Carmichael, Luke Hamilton and Adam Hastings – and a total of 12 changes from the team which beat Canada 48-10 last Saturday.
Horne will play alongside older brother Pete while Fagerson has his elder sibling Zander in the team, making it the first time two pairs of brothers have played together for Scotland since Sean and Rory Lamont and Thom and Max Evans were briefly on the field at the same time in the 2010 game against Wales.
There was a time when picking Hogg to lead any side, never mind one so relatively lacking in experience, would have been seen as an unnecessary risk given the player’s inconsistency. In particular, in 2014 he was dropped from the Glasgow side, then coached by Townsend, after hoping for a move to Ulster, and was also sent off while playing against Wales.
But Townsend has witnessed his fellow Borderer become more mature both on and off the field over the years, and explained that he therefore had no qualms about handing him the leadership role for what is expected to be a far tougher match than the game in Edmonton.
“I think he’s developed as a leader,” the head coach said. “He’s obviously one of our most experienced players. I discussed the potential of being a captain in one of these games on tour a few weeks ago and he was really excited about it, and he’s led well so far. It’s great having him available to be on tour, and to lead is even better.
“We all have challenges, especially what he achieved at such a young age – playing for his country at 19 years old, playing for the Lions at 20, 21, playing outstanding rugby.
“He did have some challenges that year,” Townsend continued, referring to 2014. “There was a real worry that he might go, he might leave Glasgow, and he and I might not have a relationship if that was to happen. I felt at the time that we had real potential to have a good relationship, because we’re both from the Borders and both came through in the Scotland team at a very young age, but everybody’s different.
“But he got through that difficult season, and the next two years he was voted Six Nations player of the tournament two seasons in a row and became a Lion for the second time. We all grow up and mature. He’s also had some great life experiences – getting married and having kids – and that changes you too.
“He cares a lot about the team, which is great, and that’s another reason why he’s captain. He loves playing for Scotland, he loves the history of Scotland – the players that used to play, and the songs, he loves all that aspect, he loves touring.
“So he’s a real asset for us on the field but also off the field. We now take for granted that what he does on the ball is the right decision more often than not – a lot more often than not.”
If there is an element of risk in choosing a new captain, there is all the more uncertainty about how a new cap will react to the demands of Test rugby, but Townsend has seen enough of scrum-half Horne and No 8 Fagerson to be as sure as he can be that they will acquit themselves well.
“We know that these players in their first starts for a lot or their first caps might not be perfect, but hope they will be inspired by the likes of Lewis Carmichael, who really grabbed his opportunity last week.
“That’s what we’ll be saying to them: you’ve earned this right, just go out and play.”