Stuart Hogg was unveiled as the official Six Nations player of the championship yesterday in recognition of the many fantastic contributions he made to the Scottish cause during the past month and a half, reaching a crescendo with that magical solo try against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium last Saturday.
He is the first Scottish winner of the award in its 13-year history, but the 23-year-old did not have time to sit back and enjoy the moment. There was the small matter of tonight’s crucial Guinness Pro12 match for Glasgow Warriors against Ulster to occupy his mind.
The full-back has been parachuted straight back into the starting team (with 13 other players who featured for the national side during the tournament also named in the Warriors squad), as Gregor Townsend looks to tap into the feel-good factor from an international campaign which saw Scotland score more tries and points than in any previous Six Nations. The effervescent Borderer wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The people who were nominated were world class players so to have found myself in there was very pleasing personally, and obviously I’m delighted to win – but now I’ve got to back it up by helping Glasgow retain the title,” he said. “We know it’s going to be tough for us, but I’m very much looking forward to tomorrow night. I’m ready to play. We’re sixth in the table, they’re above us and it’s a massive test for us. These are the games that will define our season. We’ve got a tough run-in but we know what’s at stake and a win would put us in a very good position going into the last few weeks.”
There has never been any doubt that Hogg is a fabulously talented rugby player, but after bursting onto the scene during the 2011-12 season and making it onto the Lions tour the following summer, he seemed to have a tough time adapting to the pressures and expectations which were suddenly being heaped upon him.
His form suffered and after being red-carded against Wales for a dangerous late shoulder-charge on Dan Biggar in March 2014, then being photographed in a Belfast hotel the following month attending a covert meeting with Ulster’s then director of rugby David Humphreys and coach Mark Anscombe amid a whirlwind of rumors that he was planning to walk out on the Warriors to join the province, he was eventually left out of the Warriors squad for their first ever Pro12 Grand Final appearance against Leinster in May of that year.
The fact that he has recovered from those horrible few months in such swashbuckling style says a lot about Hogg’s character. Certainly, Townsend was at pains to highlight the player’s attitude above all else when paying tribute yesterday.
“The big thing that maybe hasn’t been mentioned about Stuart’s game is that the work-rate that he puts in now is phenomenal,” said the Warriors coach. “With Duncan Taylor’s try in the France game, Tommy Seymour and him [Hogg] won the turnover, so he’s on the ground when Taylor makes his break, and right at the end you see him there in support and almost collecting the pass. I rewound it and watched it again, and he went past about three French defenders – he must have run his hardest to get there, and that’s how he is getting his rewards.
“You see the finished action when he gets the ball and beats players, but his positioning and work off the ball has been outstanding. He’s in fantastic physical shape. He’s the quickest he’s ever been, he’s actually heavier than he’s ever been at 100kgs, so to be that powerful and that quick and have that confidence – it’s great for Scottish rugby.
“He has trained so well Monday and Tuesday. It does look like his game has gone to another level – just in the three months that he has been away. His pace, his accuracy, his contribution in meetings, his preparation, he’s in great form and he’s full of confidence – so it’s great to have him available. We can’t wait to see him play.”
Jonny Gray has recovered from his pectoral tear to lead the side tonight, and Finn Russell is at stand-off following his head injury against France.
Alex Dunbar and Mark Bennett are reunited in the centre, and with Tommy Seymour and Sean Lamont outside them on the wings.
“We have this massive game against Ulster – but we have a run of games now with the postponed Zebre game still to play – so it’s important that we integrate these players back in as soon as possible,” said Townsend.