In the hours after Scotland’s heinous World Cup exit, a crestfallen Stuart Hogg fronted up to the media with typical frankness and then sent a text to Rob Baxter, his new director of rugby at Exeter Chiefs.
“What’s the plan?” asked the full-back. He told Baxter he was itching to rip into training, desperate to get back on the field, eager to salve the deep wounds inflicted in Japan by storming into life at his new club.
Hogg rocked up at the Sandy Park gym the day after landing back in the UK. He tore into the sessions and made his debut in a slugfest at Bath a week later. In his three Premiership games, he has racked up 308 metres with the ball in hand and made eight clean breaks.
In the European Champions Cup opener, a bristling 31-12 hammering of La Rochelle in France last weekend, it was his outrageous 80-metre touch-finder, rather than the wizardry of his attack, that was worthy of clipping up for the highlights. This is the brilliance, core skill and sheer bloody-mindedness that Glasgow Warriors have lost – and it is a colossal loss.
Coming up against their great departed hero, as they will in Champions Cup Pool 2 this Saturday, will hurt. There will be no malcontent towards Hogg from the Warriors fans at Sandy Park – not after the glory and the joy he brought them for nine years – but there will be a sense of bereavement amid a growing alarm about where their team is heading.
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These are pivotal times at Scotstoun, the announcement of a new head coach met with a lukewarm response this week and plans to expand the stadium in the pipeline. The worry is that while, off the field, things are rosier than ever, on it, the club is in danger of stagnating. The diminished attacking threat and lack of game-breaking ruthlessness was evident in their turgid 13-7 win over a depleted Sale Sharks.
Since the last World Cup, Leone Nakarawa, Josh Strauss, Finn Russell and Hogg have gone and now Dave Rennie, their very highly regarded coach, is following them out of the door come the end of the season. The level of expectancy set by growth and finals and raucous nights at Scotstoun is high. There is mounting angst among fans who relentlessly sell out the stadium that their big names have not been adequately replaced.
They feel short-changed by the losses of Nakarawa and Strauss and Russell and Hogg and Rennie, and the lack of stardust arriving to replace them. Even the appointment of Scotland forwards coach Wilson, who proved himself a fine operator at Wales under-20s and Cardiff Blues, was widely lamented as Scottish Rugby rushing to take the easy option rather than going big and global.
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In the past two years, Edinburgh, with a smaller average attendance and until Richard Cockerill grabbed them by the scruff, a wretched recent history, have managed to fight off French suitors to keep hold of Bill Mata, re-signed Hamish Watson, brought John Barclay in, kept Mark Bennett and Matt Scott happy and recruited more overseas talent over the summer that is already making a tangible difference.
When did Glasgow last push the boat out to land a big player? When was their last ‘statement’ signing? Has Wilson got the profile and the network to attract top names? What if Adam Hastings, their play-maker pivot, or Tommy Seymour, running at full-back in place of Hogg, gets injured? Has the money saved by getting big earners like Hogg and Alex Dunbar off the wage bill in the summer been entirely hoovered up by fatter deals handed to emerging talent?
It is both necessary and entirely sensible for Glasgow to prioritise the development of their own youngsters over burning up a relatively small budget on a couple of superstars. Russells and Hoggs don’t grow on trees and nor do they come cheap.
The jury is out on whether or not Scotland assistant Wilson is an inspired or uninspired appointment by Glasgow
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 21, 2019
George Horne, Scott Cummings, Matt Fagerson and Hastings are maturing into fantastic players. That young, hungry Scottish core is vital. But to take the next steps in Europe and the PRO14, they are going to need more. They are going to need game-breakers and match-winners.
Exeter and Baxter see Hogg, the sort of marquee acquisition they very seldom make, as pivotal to their Champions Cup ambitions. Only once have this wonderfully constructed English juggernaut made it out of their pool and never have they gone beyond the quarter-finals.
“This is the decision you have got to make – you have got to try and decide, do you want to win the big games and maybe the gamble you take is you have that one less forward who may be a bigger influence in wet-weather games,” Baxter said earlier this month.
It's time for Exeter to **** or get off the pot in Europe
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 21, 2019
“That is what decided to do with Stuart. We decided to go for match-winners to give us that bit of cutting edge in big games where maybe we have just come up that little bit short. And we have got to back the rest of the squad to be able to help us get there and battle our way through certain games – including Stuart – when things might not be quite how we want to be, but we have got a bigger plan for the whole season.
“It’s something we have looked at for quite a while. It’s really important to try to assess where you get a bit of real input – but for value – within your team. You can hold it together, say through the winter period or through the difficult periods, to be where you kind of need to be when semi-finals and finals get played. And when semi-finals and finals get played, there will be more and more opportunities for quality backs to have an influence on the game.
“It’s a little bit tough now – Stuart’s first game was basically at Bath in a gale and constant rain. His job as a full-back was probably more just to catch the ball and kick it, and his influence is going to be limited. That won’t be the same in the latter stages of either Europe or the Premiership when big games come around.”
It is in these big games where Hogg’s impact will be most keenly felt and, for Glasgow, his absence most painfully abundant.
WATCH: The RugbyPass Ventures series sees Stuart Hogg introduce his clothing line, Johnstons of Elgin
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