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Glasgow's loss is Exeter's gain

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It's rotten luck Glasgow will be up close and personal with Exeter's first real 'statement' signing

Stuart Hogg waved goodbye to Scotstoun last month on the sort of riotous, feverish night for which the place and Glasgow Warriors have become famous, his own magnificence going a long way to turning a little athletics ground into a bubbling cauldron of rugby frenzy.

With Ulster dealt a thunderous Guinness PRO14 semi-final walloping, the Hogg family wandered around the pitch embracing it all under the canopy of a beautiful mauve sunset. 

There were tears and smiles and above all gratitude in the ovation – gratitude from the supporters for what Hogg has given them for the better part of a decade; gratitude from Hogg for how they have cherished him.

The ultimate finale, of course, was sickening. Hogg clattered by Rob Kearney and led stupefied to the touchline. Leinster the PRO14 champions at Celtic Park on a night Glasgow were desperate to make their own.

Hogg might very well be a Warrior again one day but he will have a homecoming sooner than he would have dared imagine next season. His new team, Exeter Chiefs, have been drawn alongside Glasgow in Pool Two of the Champions Cup.

 

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Scotstoun is a very special place. We’ve loved every minute. Thank you. X

A post shared by Stuart W Hogg (@stuarthogg21) on

Exeter are one of English rugby’s twin heavyweights, for the Chiefs and Saracens are light years ahead of anything else in the Gallagher Premiership. Saracens made embarrassingly light work of Glasgow en route to the European crown last year while putting Chiefs away in the English final to win their fourth title in five years.

Domestically, Exeter are not far behind. Rob Baxter has taken his team to the past four Premiership finals, winning one in 2017. They topped the league table by eight points in the last campaign, conceded fewer points than anyone else, scored an average of almost 29 per regular-season match and got try bonus points in 14 of their 22 games.

Chiefs are a wonderful club who play some glorious rugby, a team built the right way by Baxter and propelled up the leagues with local, home-grown talent at its core. Jack Nowell, Henry Slade, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Sam Simmonds and Hogg’s Scotland pal Sam Skinner have all emerged on Baxter’s watch.

Generally, their recruitment policy has been to add value and experience without spending big. Hogg is a different kind of capture – arguably, their first real ‘statement’ signing, a player who would be right in the mix for any World XV.

The hope is that he can take them on in the Champions Cup where they have only once made it as far as the quarter-finals. They are, without doubt, the biggest beasts in the pool and with Hogg in the van they will feel next season ought to be the campaign where they truly arrive on the continental stage.

Also in with Exeter and Glasgow are La Rochelle, one of French rugby’s coming teams. They put a Racing 92 side that featured Leone Nakarawa, Finn Russell, Teddy Thomas, Virimi Vakatawa and Simon Zebo out of the Top 14 play-offs away from home – that’s a hell of a feat. 

La Rochelle aren’t awash with galacticos in the way that many of the top French clubs are. Uini Atonio, Marc Andreu, Victor Vito and Tawera Kerr-Barlow are among their biggest names and the former Glasgow prop, Sila Puafisi, is a member of their pack.

There have been reports of unrest amid the club hierarchy of late – specifically, that their highly-rated and now ex-coach, former France full-back Xavier Garbajosa, saw his remit and influence diminish when Jono Gibbes arrived last year above him as director of rugby. 

Nonetheless, Gibbes, Garbajosa and the rest got them into the Top 14 semi-finals and back at Europe’s top table. Garbajosa is gone now, bound for Vern Cotter’s Montpellier, and La Rochelle have replaced him with Ireland’s Ronan O’Gara, who has burnished his reputation as a young coach at the Crusaders.

In last year’s Top 14, La Rochelle lost only three games at home. They had the league’s top points-scorer in Ihaia West, beat Clermont, Racing, and Stade Francais at the Stade Marcel-Deflandre, put over 70 points on Pau and over 80 on Bordeaux-Begles. Glasgow will almost certainly have to go there and win.

Like Hogg, Byron McGuigan, Josh Strauss and his majestic beard will also be back at Scotstoun in the colours of Sale Sharks, assuming the latter is still at the club by the end of the summer. The big No8 has long desired to test himself in the Top 14 and though he has another year on his contract in Manchester, there have been eyes trained on him from across the Channel.

Sale are the least sexy of Glasgow’s three opponents but that doesn’t make them a soft target. In fact, given the cattle they’re recruiting, they could present the sternest physical challenge of the lot – not an area in which Glasgow have excelled under Dave Rennie. 

The Sharks are tooling up with an arsenal of South African talent, most notably the Springboks prop Coenie Oosthuizen and lock Lood de Jager. Denny Solomona was the league’s joint-top try-scorer last year, at 20 years old Tom Curry had an outrageously good season for club and England and in Faf de Klerk, Steve Diamond has one of world rugby’s finest scrum-halves.

Sale were woefully inconsistent last season, lurching from bottom place after a hopeless start to the campaign to fourth in the New Year, and ending up seventh. Their form on the road was particularly poor but they were always capable of a big performance, putting Saracens to the sword as recently as January.

There’s a lot of excitement now about the investment in the playing squad and the kind of ground that could be gained this time around. If Sale get their act together, they, too, will be a major proposition for Glasgow.

In the back end of last season, Warriors finally found their muscles under Rennie, proving they could be more than a team of stunning elan built on weak foundations. They have made the Champions Cup quarter-finals twice, but each time faced a trip to Allianz Park and were given a thorough pasting. 

You still feel they need a little more grunt, a monster lock or a behemoth blindside flanker to rumble them over the gain line and truly crack Europe. They have no obvious heir to Hogg at full-back and they do not have the financial muscle to sign a replacement of similar calibre. 

The summer recruitment will be fascinating and absolutely pivotal, particularly given Glasgow could conceivably lose 20 players to the World Cup and most of that contingent to the Six Nations only a few months later. Their signings and their depth will face immense scrutiny.

This is Rennie’s third season in charge and quite possibly his last, with the New Zealander’s one-year contract extension leaving him well placed to capitalise on any international vacancies in the wake of Japan. How painfully close to silverware Glasgow came last month and how much he and his players long for a tangible reward for their gains.

Hogg is only just out the door, the campaign barely wrapped, but such is the way of modern rugby, already a new and exacting season beckons.

WATCH: Jim Hamilton catches up with Stuart Hogg in the Rugby Pass Ventures series

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It's rotten luck Glasgow will be up close and personal with Exeter's first real 'statement' signing