The rise and fall of Stuart Hogg

Date published: May 30 2014

British and Irish Lions full-back Stuart Hogg is set to miss out on Glasgow's PRO12 Final; where did things go off the rails?

British and Irish Lions full-back Stuart Hogg is set to miss out on Glasgow's PRO12 Final; where did things go off the rails?

If Scottish rugby's well-oiled rumour mill is to be believed, and Friday's Glasgow Warriors matchday squad for this weekend's PRO12 Final in Dublin is indeed minus the moniker of a certain “S. Hogg”, the steady wagging of tongues and not-so-discreet whispering will surely reach a crescendo.

It will mark the second truly massive fixture for the club in as many weeks their poster boy has been left out of, without injury or suspension, after he was omitted from the 23 that toppled Munster in a thrilling Scotstoun semi-final.

Those beyond Scottish borders, less familiar with the intricacies of Glasgow's squad and their season to date are right to raise eyebrows or offer the odd expletive-laden expression of incredulity as the team sheets are read out, and one conspicuous absence follows another.

After all, Stuart Hogg is Scotland's only good player, right? The only penetrative back capable of beating tacklers, embarking on scything broken-field runs, bringing the Murrayfield crowd to its feet and scoring the tries the nation has been starved of for over a decade? Well, except for that big Dutch bloke anyway.

I, for one, don't buy it.

“Hoggy” is the most talented rugby player north of Hadrian's Wall; not to mention that rarest of beasts in the Scottish pro-era, a British and Irish Lion, and a gamebreaker for club and country.

To leave him out of the biggest game of the season would, a year ago, have been due cause for Townsend to undergo rigorous testing for recreational narcotics, such was the importance of his enigmatic fulcrum.

Hogg lit up the Six Nations with swashbuckling solo tries against England and Italy in 2013, scored for fun as the Warriors again reached the playoffs, and as recently as Boxing Day, followed up a smart kick to down inter-city rivals Edinburgh at Murrayfield.

His tour of Australia with the composite side was a bit of a mixed bag, where he featured most prominently in what is probably his third-best position at fly-half, and in one of the provincial fixtures in particular, teamed up with a set of midfielders he had barely shaken hands with 48 hours previous.

But that was then and this is now. Townsend has done without Hogg through international duty and suspension for large chunks of the Warriors' domestic campaign, and in his stead, the dependable if unspectacular Peter Murchie has excelled in some of the team's most impressive results.

If the head coach, perhaps the most recent product of his country to match or even better Hogg for sheer God-given talent, reckons his side can lift the trophy without him, then the supporters ought to trust their man. Queries should be raised, but directed towards the player and his attitude rather than the decisions of the head coach.

For Townsend is an astute tactician and one who, not so long ago, assumed the mantle now borne by Hogg of Scottish rugby's golden boy. In the latter stages of his career, as John Leslie and Alan Tait exited stage left, he often appeared foolish on the field so far ahead was he of the sea of midfield mediocrity that swamped him.

Hogg is faced with an altogether different landscape to negotiate. No-one doubts he has the potential to become a great of the game, and one beyond the confines of his homeland at that. With a set of talented young backs – the likes of Finn Russell, Matt Scott, Mark Bennett and Alex Dunbar – now emerging on the scene, there are reasons to be cheerful for Scottish fans who are painfully accustomed to their side finishing games with a points tally divisible by three.

It is perhaps the case that too much pressure has been placed too soon upon his still 21-year-old shoulders, causing the stoic expression best observed in those who hail from the Scottish Borders to crack a little, and reveal the turbulence that lies within.

Certainly, there is evidence he can be got at by opponents, riled up and rendered a liability on the pitch. Crestfallen though he appeared after a rush of blood led to a sending off in Cardiff on the final day of the Six Nations, there is a strong argument that in games such as that Munster showdown, where the stakes are high, the intensity approaching Test-level, and the rugby punctuated by bouts of needle and handbags, it is almost wiser to leave him on the sidelines than risk a game-altering flash of scarlet.

Townsend may feel, rightly or wrongly, that the player is surplus to requirements, and the apparently covert meetings with Ulster representatives that have been plastered all over the Irish press this week do appear to bear substance.

Hogg is good enough to thrive wherever he plays, and though dispensing with his services altogether seems drastic; the Scots who will be left pondering his departure ought to be fervently hoping a move across the Irish Sea offers a fresh outlook and a new lease of life to the man billed as “Scotland's Saviour”.

By Jamie Lyall