Stuart Hogg: Ready to climb his own Everest
Lions' cub, 20, joins long line of players from Scottish borders club Hawick given opportunity to make his mark at highest level
Tuesday 21 May 2013
Stuart Hogg knows the words of Jim Telfer, the finale to the "this is your Everest" speech delivered by the granite-hewn Scot on the eve of the 1997 series in South Africa, the last time the Lions came home victorious. They are written in rugby history, a seminal moment in the Lions story, and Hogg, despite being the cub of the latest tour party, knows his rugby history.
It was five years ago, as a 15-year-old, that Hogg first came across Telfer in the flesh. Telfer is a man in whom the rugby fires will never die, which is why he was coaching a Scottish Borders under-16 side. The night before meeting Telfer, Hogg watched again the fly-on-the-wall documentary that caught the quietly rousing words uttered to eight spellbound forwards in a Cape Town hotel.
"Me and my friends used to quote Jim all the time – for a while that's how we used to communicate, in Telfer quotes," says Hogg. "One of the first things I said to him at the first coaching session was, 'I watched the 1997 Lions video last night'."
The days of talking Telfer are not long gone. Hogg's rise from promising schoolboy, evenings spent playing scratch games in the street outside his home, across the River Teviot from Mansfield Park, home of Hawick RFC, has been almost as brisk as one of his seat-of-the-pants line-breaks. Last year he became Scotland's youngest international for half a century. By the time he turns 21, two days after the first Test in Brisbane, he will, barring disaster, be a Lion.
"It's been a pretty chaotic year and I've enjoyed every minute," says Hogg. "Growing up back home, all you wanted to do was play rugby at the highest level and this summer I will get to do it. It's pretty surreal. I grew up watching the likes of Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll."
There is a touch of the O'Driscolls about Hogg, that elusiveness, the low centre of gravity, but it is a less heralded No 13 who played a formative role in his career. Hogg has followed Jim Renwick, his former mentor, from Hawick to Scotland and the Lions, a path trodden with remarkable regularity from a town of less than 15,000 hidden in the rolling hills of border country.
"Where I'm from is the heartland of Scottish rugby," says Hogg. "I played rugby from as early as I could; all my friends play rugby. I was the 59th Hawick boy to be capped by Scotland. That was a real honour and to be the 12th Lion to come out of Hawick is pretty special. It's something that lives with me for the rest of my days."
His father John played alongside Renwick for Hawick, once Scotland's predominant club, and now his brother Graham, a Scotland Sevens player, maintains the family's presence in the green jersey.
It is three weeks since Hogg senior took a rare Tuesday off work. It was Lions selection day and John Hogg settled in front of the TV. In Glasgow, where he now plays his domestic rugby, his son could not settle. Instead he grabbed his kicking tee and Chris Paterson, the former Scotland full-back, and headed onto the pitch. "I thought, 'Ach I can't watch it'," says Hogg. "I started goal kicking but my head was elsewhere. I couldn't concentrate – it was this horrible, weird feeling. Then the relief, the enjoyment."
Hogg began the season on nobody's list of Lions-to-be. Yet he knew the sparkle was back in his feet. A year ago he had departed for Australia and his first tour as part of a Scotland squad whitewashed in the Six Nations. Hogg calls it the "lowest I have been in my rugby career". Then Scotland somehow won a stoical rearguard action in Newcastle – Hogg ran with the ball for six metres, compared to 81 against England and 120 against Italy in this year's Six Nations – and he came home with a smile on his face again.
The smile is broader than ever now. He sits on a sofa in the lobby of a London hotel where the squad have gathered for the first time. In the bar Rob Howley and the coaching staff are clustered around a laptop. Seated alongside Hogg is Bill, a large cuddly lion. As the youngest member of the party it is Hogg's job to mind Bill. Every time it disappears he will be fined, and his new team-mates will see it disappears as often as possible.
The Lions are about tradition – that the notion has survived, and thrived, in professional rugby is a victory for it – some silly, some sentimental, some simple. It's the one about the Englishman, the Irishman, the Welshman and the Scotsman: who's best?
In Hogg's case there is no Englishman. Alex Goode, Mike Brown and Ben Foden have been left behind, demonstrating the depth in the full-back position. Leigh Halfpenny is favourite. Hogg wants the 15 shirt but it seems the management might have something else in mind. Hogg, suggested Howley, has the "X-factor." The Wales coach once heard Hogg sing – he made his debut in Cardiff and had to perform in the post-match banquet. Warren Gatland too was in the audience as Hogg belted out "I'm A Believer", an experience the Scot claims hazy memories of, having already endured another post-debut ritual of a drink with each member of the team. But the Welsh contingent is rather more impressed by what they have seen on the pitch.
With only two 10s in the squad, Hogg is likely to spend game time in that jersey as well. He can also play in the centre, a versatility which could see him on the bench for the Tests – Gatland has stated he sees the bench as a crucial part to winning Down Under.
Hogg shone against England and Italy this season. Under the guidance of the ice-cool Paterson, who has become a growing influence, Hogg has refined his game management – the gambles are still taken, as in his interception try against Italy, but are more calculated. His Glasgow coach is Gregor Townsend, once another risk-taker, a crowd-pleaser of the sort in short supply of late in Scotland.
"Every time I go out on the rugby pitch it is to enjoy it, have some fun," says Hogg. "I get excited for every game. I just love doing it.
"There has been chat about a little bit of 10 here and there. There's a big responsibility to playing 10 but you have legends around you that will carry your game through. I would love to have the opportunity to play alongside Brian O'Driscoll. He's one of my heroes. Playing against him was pretty incredible. To play alongside him…"
Hogg pauses and shakes his head. One arm rests around Bill, and then he adds, as if swearing an oath on the Lions' mascot: "I'm going to do everything within my power to make sure it happens."
Stuart Hogg is an adidas ambassador. To buy your Lions shirt visit adidas.com and to join the conversation visit @adidasUK #StandTogether
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