In the Scottish sporting sky only Andy Murray shines brighter than Stuart Hogg at the moment.
The flying full-back delivered another eye-popping display of brilliance to inspire Scotland to this joyous victory over Ireland which sparked delirium in the BT Murrayfield stands not witnessed for many a year. The breathtaking brace made the 24-year-old the country’s top Six Nations tryscorer with nine in a competition which has for so long been something of a torture chamber for Scotland’s long-suffering rugby public.
The progress under Vern Cotter had brought optimism but the sight of those green jerseys which have dished out so much pain to the dark blue the past 17 years sparked a sense of nagging doubt. That returned with a vengeance when the Irish stormed back to snatch the lead in the second half. Here we go again, was the general mood. But rather than fold, as so often in the past, Scotland hit back and sealed the deal.
Earlier, as the Scots left the field at half-time, leading 21-8 and to the strains of music from the original Trainspotting soundtrack, it did feel like we were back in the 1990s when Ireland were our annual whipping boys rather than misery inflictors. The 13-point lead was hewn from a magnificent team effort, with indefatigable, body-on-the-line defence and character to steady a scrum which had looked ominously like a sinking ship in the early stages. It was Hogg, pictured right, who stood out like a shining beacon, however, as the player of the tournament from last season picked up from where he left off with a dazzling display.
First he collected a Finn Russell pass which had gone to ground, spun away and scampered over down the right. The second was even better as Russell and Huw Jones sent him searing down the left to catch a flat-footed and narrow Irish defensive line cold, a show and go and he was over once again as Murrayfield exploded. Despite appearing to be struggling in a few key areas, the scrum being the primary one, Scotland were 14-0 up.
The former Ireland and Lions skipper Paul O’Connell now believes Hogg is the first name on the Test teamsheet for this summer’s tour to New Zealand and few would argue.
Ireland responded with a try which could just as easily have been an intercept score for Tommy Seymour, but the ball eluded the Glasgow wing’s grasp and gave Keith Earls a simple chance.
Hogg’s brilliance was then supplemented by a piece of innovative genius, credited to forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys, which left the already stunned Irishmen open-mouthed in disbelief.
As Russell’s intelligent grubber to the corner won a lineout close to the visiting line the Scots called a nine-man lineout with Greig Laidlaw at the front and centre Alex Dunbar also a couple of places back.
The Irish were anticipating a throw to the middle and the backs to join the drive to the line but replacement hooker Ross Ford simply popped the ball to the Glasgow midfielder who glided over almost unopposed. “I’ve been trying to get in the forwards all my days,” joked Dunbar afterwards. “It was a move we’d worked on a little bit.
“I was just happy to catch the ball and luckily there was a gap in front of me.
“Ireland set up and marked it at the start. But, as Jonny made the call, they moved and the gap opened.
“When I saw the gap, I just went for it. It all just depended on how they marked up. I’m just glad I caught it.
“More lineouts for me? No, I’m not planning on doing too many more!”
Paddy Jackson pegged back a penalty to leave Ireland within two converted scores but all seemed right with the world at half-time.
That is always a dangerous place to be for Scotland and, sure enough, the backlash came and Ireland appeared to be on their way to an incredible fightback when Iain Henderson drove over and then Jackson wriggled free to move them 22-21 up.
Those breaches aside, the Scottish defence was heroic, keeping them in with a puncher’s chance.
Left wing Sean Maitland distinguished himself with a couple of decisive contributions, snaffling the ball after Jamie Heaslip appeared to have opened the Scots up and making a brilliant last-ditch tackle in the corner on Rob Kearney, while replacement flanker John Barclay was at his breakdown scavenging best.
The belief that they would get their chance came to pass thanks to some quite brilliant game management by Laidlaw. The captain had already kicked Scotland back in front when they won another penalty with four minutes to go.
Rather than go for the posts and give the Irish another shot, a kick to the corner saw the Scots run down the clock with aplomb.
The Irish succumbed and when another penalty did come wide on the left, the scrum-half played the clock like a fiddle and then, with Flower of Scotland being belted out by an ecstatic home crowd that knew the game was won, sent the kick sailing through the posts, arms aloft in triumph.
“I can’t speak highly enough of the work Greig does within the team,” said Cotter.
“Greig has been huge in his ledership role for the last couple of years. And with kicking those penalties and conversions as well. He had a huge role in this game.”