Stuart Hogg will start for the Lions in Cape Town on Saturday
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
There are long waits to win a Test cap for the British and Irish Lions and then there is the rollercoaster Stuart Hogg has been riding since he first toured Australia eight years ago as the squad’s youngest player.
The Scotland captain will finally be capped by the Lions on Saturday, named at full-back to face South Africa despite intense competition from Liam Williams.
The 2017 Lions tour in New Zealand was supposed to be Hogg’s time, coming off consecutive player of the Six Nations awards, only to suffer a freak injury running into the elbow of his own team-mate, Conor Murray, and fracturing his cheek against the Crusaders.
You could forgive Hogg if emotions are running high when he runs out at Cape Town Stadium to face the Springboks because to get to this point he has suffered, even spending a week in isolation on this tour after being identified as a Covid-19 close contact while the rest of the squad left for Cape Town.
Hogg was pinged as a result of his allocated seat on the team bus. Hopefully he does not place too much stock in omens, particularly after what happened in New Zealand.
"The injury in 2017 happened on the Saturday, and I didn’t leave the camp until the Thursday. That was some one of the toughest four-day periods I’ve had," Hogg tells Telegraph Sport.
"I was obviously injured, and knew I was playing no further part. I was incredibly well looked after by everybody involved in the Lions. But I just felt I was a spare part. You have very little influence on what’s happening going forward, and it was tough to take. I was really quite down."
Hogg’s return home took a slight detour, after gaining permission from his wife. Scotland were touring Australia in Gregor Townsend’s first matches as head coach. Hogg texted the Scotland team manager to ask if he could spend a couple of days with the squad. The subsequent time spent in Sydney proved therapeutic, watching on as Scotland defeated the Wallabies, followed by some welcome drinks with his national team-mates.
"That picked me up. I had to do a lot of persuading to my wife to let me go there. I had a few beers with the boys after that and then the long journey home started on my own, which was really quite dark."
Hogg’s time in New Zealand came to a premature, gut-wrenching conclusion. His time in Australia four years beforehand meanwhile was an eye-opening experience, aged 21, trailing Leigh Halfpenny and learning as much from the Wales full-back as possible, while overcoming the awe of playing alongside his childhood hero, Brian O’Driscoll.
"I can remember the first day we met up in camp, being in awe of the players there, Paul O’Connell, my hero Brian O’Driscoll, Mike Phillips. I believe Brian knew that I was going, ‘why am I here?’
"One of the best games I’ve been involved in was when I was at No 10 against Combined Country, and had Jamie Roberts and O’Driscoll outside me. Just incredible. I remember taking a selfie after the game with both of them and thinking how amazing it was. Absolutely loved it.
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"The best thing about 2013 was I learnt a hell of a lot about what it means to be at the top of your game. I followed Leigh for eight weeks, who was named player of the Lions series having just been named Six Nations player of the year.
"It was his level of professionalism. I felt I was professional, but his recovery methods, training, time he spent on the field, worked on every aspect of his game. At that time he was the world’s best goal-kicker. The practice he put in was incredible – you get out what you put in, I guess. He was just unbelievable."
With this being Hogg’s third Lions tour, he now finds himself in a similar mentoring role to his predecessors – helping Louis Rees-Zammit and other first-time tourists – with Warren Gatland notably naming Hogg as captain for two warm-up matches.
Hearing Hogg, 29, outline how the demands of the position at full-back have changed recently is interesting. The Springboks are not shy of putting boot to ball through Faf de Klerk, Handré Pollard and Willie le Roux. Variety in a team’s kicking game and using that to unlock defences is now paramount, according to Hogg, along with putting in the necessary repetitions in training to build up belief under the high ball.
Stuart Hogg (left) captained the Lions against the Stormers
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
"The biggest thing over the past few years is defences are massive and win Test matches. There’s no other way to go about it," he explains.
"So to break them down, you’re getting all different kinds of kicking coming into it – chip kicks, by No 9s from the base of the ruck, box kicks, high cross-fields. I’ve found myself as a full-back keeping an eye on scrum-halves and fly-halves a lot more over the last few years, for the triggers we pick up.
"[Scotland] faced England in 2020, with George Ford and Farrell at 10 and 12, and the way they manipulated our back-three through the positioning of their players was really quite challenging. That game made me rethink where to stand, where to keep my eyes on. But if you get it right defensively, you can take that strength away.
"South African teams, you face a lot of high balls from No 9 and 10, so it’s about getting up there to diffuse those kicks and make sure we come up with the ball. No kick is the same; the ball flight, chase, length. It’s making sure I’m confident to get up and take them. As soon as you get a couple early in a game, you tend to go well."
Find a way to negate de Klerk’s box kicks and the Lions will have a foundation to work from. Having seen off Williams for the starting No 15 shirt, and processed the anguish of four years ago, Hogg will take to the field in Cape Town for the biggest game of his already stellar career. Given his path to this point, it’s hard not to root for him.
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