The announcement was almost sneaky, issued at 08:35 the morning after an autumn Test when most fans were gleefully comatose and most journalists were pondering whether the merlot or the sauvignon would do best for bottle of wine number five.
The smart money was always on Stuart Hogg leaving Glasgow this summer and the Sunday morning press release killed any lingering hope that he would stick around. He is 26 now, the father of two young children, he has spent his entire senior career at Warriors and no-one in Scotland should resent his decision. It is time to go.
No matter how much he loved his little Hawick haven, and the club and city where he has revelled for nine years, there would always come a time to seek new challenges.
However well his workload is managed in Scotland, he has suffered facial, shoulder, hip and ankle injuries in the last 18 months, and undergone two operations. A professional in today’s game faces more savagery and a greater risk of career-ending trauma than ever. Why not earn big while you can?
In Exeter Chiefs, Hogg has found that big salary at a big club with a seriously big culture. He will also become part of a fabulous rugby story.
Chiefs were a small team with huge ambitions when Rob Baxter led them to promotion in 2010. In their first season in the Premiership, they finished eighth, 20 points clear of the bottom two, and continued to grow.
Baxter proved a prolific nurturer of local talent. Henry Slade, Jack Nowell, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Dave Ewers, Sam Simmonds and more have emerged from the region and flourished on his watch. Scotland fans got a flavour of one of the latest to appear on the scene, Sam Skinner, when the brilliant lock made his man-of-match debut against Fiji.
In Gareth Steenson, Ben Moon and Phil Dollman, Baxter had his clutch of “originals” – men who had been there from the start. Men who drove the culture of improvement. To the tyros and the stalwarts he added a smattering of foreign guile without breaking the bank – Julien Salvi, Dean Mumm and Thomas Waldrom were three of the most pivotal recruits.
The upshot of all this? A fantastically blended squad, a ravenous thirst for success and an irresistible upward trajectory. Chiefs won the title for the first time in 2017 and have featured in each of the last three finals, topping the regular-season standings last year, and playing some lovely rugby along the way.
There’s romance to their narrative in spades – very seldom does a promoted club with such a home-grown core make such a telling footprint in the top flight. Not without sacrificing eye-watering sums of money at any rate.
This, though, is a box-office signing – the like of which Chiefs have not made very often. Hogg will be seen as pivotal in their drive to go further in Europe, where they have only once made it out of their Champions Cup pool.
Still, Exeter are near the very summit of English rugby and they didn’t get there by flogging players. Worries about Hogg’s welfare outside Scotland are not ill-founded – he will certainly be expected to play more games in the Premiership than he did in the Pro14 – but Baxter is hardly going to whip his biggest, most box-office signing to date into oblivion.
Chiefs have won all six of their league games this season, five of them with a bonus point, and sit top of the table. They average just shy of five tries per Premiership game and have conceded the fewest. Hogg might form a frankly terrifying back-three unit with Nowell and Alex Cuthbert, the giant Wales winger. Imagine that lot carving lines off Slade and his pals or cantering around in broken field.
The Scot has joined a team who play to his strengths, who will harness his incredible attacking weaponry, and encourage his colourful nature off the field.
When interviewed by Premiership Rugby’s website earlier this year, Baxter spoke about what he looked for in new signings and his words were telling. He scoffed at the idea of bringing “robots” to Sandy Park. He sought selflessness – of course he did – but he was after flair and individuality too.
“We expect him to have his own character, but we want his good characteristics to win through,” he said.
“We have probably got a wider variety of haircuts, tattoos, cars in the car park, interests away from the club than almost any other club.
“They can be their own man and we encourage that but we expect them, on certain fundamentals, to buy into a couple of qualities because they can be successful together.
“We carry ourselves such that if I was a person in the local area they’d be the kind of people I’d want to support. We have worked very hard on that over a number of years and we’re reaping the rewards because people want to be involved with us.”
When you trace Exeter’s journey, look at the way they operate and hear Baxter talk of playing for something more, you can’t help but think of the club Hogg is leaving behind.
Gradually, Glasgow ascended from Scotland’s second-best, operating on a shoestring budget, to a respected team, then a formidable one. They were led by their great totem, Al Kellock, and thrust onwards by a host of long-serving Warriors, hungry young Scots and foreign stardust.
They climbed up the league, reached semi-finals and finals and their crowning moment, with Gregor Townsend at the helm, was a raucous dismantling of Munster to win the Pro12 title in 2015.
Hogg played a vast role in Glasgow’s transformation while undergoing his own metamorphosis. In these nine years, he grew from the cocky upstart earmarked as Scotland’s saviour who got far too big for is boots to a snarling, gallant leader. A rapier full-back to rival any in the game. A fulcrum with 63 caps and two British and Irish Lions tours.
You can’t keep that sort of talent in Scotland forever, particularly with only two pro-teams. At some point, a player will yearn for new challenges, a new lifestyle and yes, the sort of hefty pay cheque his brilliance commands. Greig Laidlaw and Finn Russell left before him and each is soaring in France, getting better for their travels.
Hogg’s departure is no catastrophe for the national team but it is a grievous loss to Glasgow. Even though he only played seven games last season, you can’t understate the influence of such a world-class talent on his team-mates and his opponents. Hogg lifts Glasgow and stresses their rivals in a massive way.
Replacing him will be fiendishly difficult. When a big name leaves the often congested two-team Scottish system, it creates opportunities for burgeoning talent to play. When Russell headed for Racing 92 in the summer, Adam Hastings was waiting and clearly ready to seize his chance, but there is no such heir apparent to Hogg at Scotstoun.
Ruaridh Jackson is a fine player but he will be 31 at the end of the season. Blair Kinghorn and Darcy Graham – famously described as “another Hogg in the making” by Scotland Sevens coach John Dalziel – are the up-and-coming but both belong to Edinburgh and you can only imagine a crowbar large enough to subdue an elephant would be needed to pry either from Richard Cockerill.
Glasgow can’t sign a full-back of Hogg’s profile – not with their budget – but that doesn’t mean they can’t get hold of a seriously good replacement. They’re used to being smart with recruitment. Leone Nakarawa and Niko Matawalu arrived on modest salaries and were outstanding. Leo Sarto, Simone Favaro, Josh Strauss and Sean Maitland cost a lot more but still nowhere near Hogg-level dough, and each excelled.
Dave Rennie will probably have a bit more cash to play with on his quest to deliver a new full-back and it is likely he will look to New Zealand, the land he knows best and men he knows well. Maybe there is a Gareth Anscombe-type figure on the fringes of the All Blacks who fancies a new challenge. The pressure is on and this is where Rennie and his staff earn their crust.
Even had Hogg decided to stay, Glasgow have a mountain of contracting and recruitment to sort out. Most deals these days run for two years so it is not uncommon to find half-a-squad’s contracts running out at once, but there are over 20 senior players and a ton of big names on Warriors’ “expiring” list.
Tommy Seymour, Alex Dunbar, Huw Jones, Lee Jones, Sam Johnson, George Horne, Zander Fagerson, Adam Ashe, Siua Halanukonuka – all out of contract. Rennie himself is coming to the end of his deal. This is rugby contracting season and the next few months will be critical in shaping how Glasgow look in August.
Hogg has earned his big move to a brilliant club. The challenge for those at Scotstoun is to take what he helped build and grow it again.
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