Stuart Hogg interview: His Lions Test team target and learning from Jim Telfer, Brian O’Driscoll and Leigh Halfpenny
Stuart Hogg reckons he knows 90 per cent of the dialogue from Living with Lions off by heart. Growing up in Hawick, he and his brother Graham all but wore out their copy of the documentary which chronicles the 1997 tour of South Africa in vivid detail.
“I loved it, absolutely loved it,” says the Scotland captain.
Jim Telfer and Ian McGeechan are the stars, kingpin coaches who dispense advice and wisdom with a ferocious intensity. There are notable appearances from Doddie Weir, invalided out of the tour far too soon, and Gregor Townsend, the stand-off in the two Test victories.
It may be 24 years old but there is still plenty of mileage in the film, particularly Telfer’s aphorisms.
“We have a good bit of craic in and around camp,” said Hogg. “Gregor is the coach and he was obviously on that tour and anytime we have a disagreement or Gregor gets something wrong the classic Jim Telfer quote comes out: ‘Gregor mon, you’re wrong!’ And you can just see him chuckling away to himself. I think deep down he loves it.”
Almost a quarter of a century on and the wheel has turned full circle. Townsend is part of the Lions coaching team and Hogg is a key member of the squad going to South Africa with an eye on a place in the Test team.
Third time lucky for the Test team?
This is the full-back’s third tour and he is set to become the first Scot in the professional era to complete the Lions set. He was part of the 2013 odyssey to Australia, a callow 20-year-old and the baby of the squad. He played five matches against provincial opposition - some at full-back and some at stand-off - and served notice of his prodigious talents.
Four years later he travelled to New Zealand as the two-time player of the Six Nations, determined to force his way into the Test team only for fate to intervene. In the third game of the tour, against the Crusaders in Christchurch, Hogg collided with team-mate Conor Murray while chasing his own garryowen. The full-back’s face felt the force of the Irishman’s elbow and Hogg’s tour was over. A facial fracture saw him sent home, a bitterly disappointing end for the player but fuel to fire his determination to reclaim that red No 15 jersey.
“It’s something I’ve kept quiet for a number of years but this has been my target because I’ve had a little taste of it over the last two tours but I want to be involved in the big games,” he says.
“To have the last tour taken away from me was really quite disappointing and it hurt me for a long time. so I’ve been targeting this for a while now.
“I played some of my best rugby going into that tour and felt I was in a good place. I’d have backed myself to be there or thereabouts and definitely in the conversations to be in the Test team.
“I can’t change what happened now it’s all gone but I’m in control of what happens in the future and I’ll be doing everything I possibly can to be involved in the big games.”
From eager student to young Lion
Hogg is in his prime. He will turn 29 later this month and is going into the tour on the back of a distinguished Six Nations and what looks like another successful season with his club, Exeter Chiefs. However, he knows the competition to make Warren Gatland’s Test team will be fierce, with Wales’ Liam Williams equally determined to retain the full-back jersey he wore with distinction in 2017.
“I’m not an experienced Lion by any means,” Hogg notes. “On the last tour I was back after two weeks with an injury. Everyone will go out there with a huge amount of excitement but will be ready to learn and improve and make sure we’re in the best place possible to have a successful time out there. It’s going to be an incredible challenge for us all but one we’re very much looking forward to.”
Hogg has been a Lions fan from an early age and he put his knowledge to good use as a 16-year-old student at Borders College. Studying under the auspices of Galashiels coach Richie Gray, he was asked to select a squad for the 2009 tour of South Africa.
“It was a rugby course and one of the tasks was to pick a squad of who we thought would be going on the Lions tour,” Hogg recalls. “And then when the next Lions tour came around I was going on it which was pretty incredible. I just love everything that happens in and around the Lions and your own little chance to create a bit of history is very, very special.”
Learning from BIL and BOD
His first tour was an eye-opener. Exposure to the sheer professionalism on show had a lasting effect on the young Hogg who has since used the experience to shape his career.
As the youngest member of the 2013 squad one of his duties was to look after BIL, the Lions mascot which sits by the side of the pitch. BIL – standing for British and Irish Lion - has been the mascot since 2013, replacing Leo, who bowed out after almost two decades of duty.
Louis Rees-Zammit will be BIL’s guardian in South Africa and Hogg has already warned the young Wales wing to watch it like a hawk. “He needs to keep his eyes on it all the time because it has a tendency to go walkabout.”
Hogg soaked up everything he could on the 2013 tour which ended with the Lions claiming a 2-1 Test series victory over the Wallabies.
“I played five out of the 10 games and the biggest thing I learned was the level of professionalism to be at the best you could possibly be,” says Hogg, speaking on behalf of Land Rover, an official sponsor of the Lions tour to South Africa.
“I was 20 years old, I had my 21st birthday on tour, and I was sitting with Leigh Halfpenny who had been voted Six Nations player of the year and got man of the series and he was absolutely incredible. His levels of professionalism on and off the field are just incredible and it's something I've tried to follow ever since.
“I roomed with him a few times and he was an absolute nightmare on game day because he is so professional and so focused on what he’s doing but I just loved everything he did and it gave me a taste of what I needed to do to be the best.
“I had the chance to learn from some legends of the game and it really just made me want to get better and better and have an involvement again on the next tour.
“My best moment with the Lions would probably be in one of the games in 2013 when I was playing at 10 and I got to play with my hero Brian O'Driscoll. So I was looking outside and I had Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll and Conor Murray was at scrum half. I was in awe of these guys and I couldn't quite believe I was playing alongside them.
“I had to pinch myself at times. I was doing a miss pass and it was hitting Brian O'Driscoll - it was the stuff dreams were made of.”
O’Driscoll, Halfpenny and now Townsend and Gatland. Hogg is learning from the best and ready to play his part should Living with Lions require a sequel.
“My brother and I had a laugh about it the other day, he says. “I’ve been selected to go on a Lions tour to South Africa and I could quote 90 per cent of that video.”
• Stuart Hogg is a Land Rover ambassador. Keep up to date with Land Rover’s Lions Adventure @LandRoverRugby #LionsAdventure
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