Six Nations: Stuart Hogg to seek advice from Gavin Hastings on captaining Scotland from full-back
I n light of the developments regarding Finn Russell, the name Hastings was always going to be thrown towards new Scotland captain Stuart Hogg but it now takes on a different light.
The now Exeter Chiefs man had a skipper cameo in the loss against the United States on the summer tour of 2018, but the 27-year-old has now been handed the honour of captaining his country in the Guinness Six Nations, which starts with a daunting away trip to Ireland on Saturday.
The scepticism over a full-back’s ability to captain a team might come as a surprise to those of us who grew up with the titanic Gavin Hastings, right, who led the British and Irish Lions from that position in 1993, and continued for a further two years as national team skipper with his characteristic blood, sweat and tears approach for his beloved Scotland.
“I speak to loads of different people and ask for advice, ask how different things worked for them. Gavin would be a good one to have a chat with,” said Hogg, “To see how he managed his success as captain, what brought the best out of him and how you bring the best out of players in the frontline from being so far behind.
“There are lots of different bits and pieces that I’m going to have to adapt to, but there’s a great group of leaders I’m working alongside. The likes of Stuart McInally, Fraser Brown, Jamie Ritchie, boys that are in the frontline.
“I’ll be having different conversations with different coaches and I’ll obviously have to adapt to what the referee would like as well. It’s pretty pointless me running in from full-back to make a point about the front-row scrummaging.”
Hogg is as honest as ever in admitting, as many a true rugby fan does, that he has no idea what is going on when those big lads bind and do their cosa nostra in the scrum. “We’ll be chatting to the referees prior to the games and saying that if there are any problems there, speak to one of those guys. I’m absolutely clueless as to what happens in terms of the big boys up front,” said Hogg with a smile. “I’m going to learn on the move, but I’m ready for it and excited for it.”
On the subject of captaining from full-back, head coach Gregor Townsend has no qualms.
“I played inside Gavin when he was captain. His first game [as skipper] was against Italy A at Melrose and it didn’t go that well. We just sneaked a win, back in 1992. But then things got better and better right up to the World Cup where he had his last game for Scotland.
“I played at 13 and 10 inside a captain at 15 and it was brilliant for me to have someone who’s your captain talking to you throughout the game, giving you confidence to play the ball as a young player in the team.
“Those things probably don’t get talked about much in terms of the role of a captain; people think the captain’s role is to speak to referees. But the guys the referee is going to want to speak to about the front row are the hooker or the props, around the breakdown it’s the back rows. At other times, it’s the captain, so there will be times for Stuart to speak to the referee and then to the team about the messages the referee wants to give.
“But to have someone’s knowledge, enthusiasm and energy out in the backline helping the backs will be great. Stuart will always bring that, but now he has that authority and he’ll give other players confidence to play what they see and make the right decisions.”
The well-publicised absence of Russell has scrambled a few minds in the Scottish rugby arena in the last few days but Hogg has a steely focus. “Nothing is going to change in terms of the way we want to try to play. We want to play quick rugby, we want to play with ambition and we’ve got some X-Factor players within our squad,” said the skipper.
“I truly believe that with the gameplan we’re going to try to implement, we’re going to be scoring tries, we’ll be applying pressure to the opposition. It’s about finding the balance of when to play and when not to play. We’re constantly learning individually and collectively to make sure we’re not making the same mistakes.
“Yes, we probably have overplayed at times but we’ve learned from that and the big thing is applying pressure. The kicking game is massive nowadays, be that attacking kicks, field position or creating counter-attack ball for us.
“We need to play smart rugby and make sure we’re not making the same mistakes we previously have been doing.
“I want the boys to play with confidence. I want us to play with ambition and express ourselves. That’s when we’re at our best.”
Saturday in Dublin will be a meeting between two chastened teams. Ireland whipped Scotland in the opening Pool A match in Yokohama before, having headed into the tournament as the world’s No 1 team, being ruthlessly dismantled by the All Blacks at the quarter-final stage.
Only beaten once at home in the Six Nations in five years, and only once by Scotland in Dublin over the past 20 [at Croke Park in 2010 when the new Aviva Stadium was under construction], are they more vulnerable this year?
“That question is always impossible to answer. You can only answer it after the final whistle,” said Townsend. “But it’s exciting and challenging and motivating to go and play Ireland away, which in terms of stats is now the toughest game in the Six Nations over the last few years.
“It will show us where we are, if we have learned and improved from other games where we’ve not done as well away from home, and what we need to do the next week against England, which is obviously the biggest game for us every year, the Calcutta Cup.”