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Hogg keen to make up for lost time

Having played international rugby in all three back-row positions, it was always clear Ally Hogg was a versatile fellow, but even his strongest admirers were taken aback when he added a vanishing act to his repertoire.

Ally Hogg has been recalled from the wilderness to help Scotland A against England Saxons tonight. Picture: Craig Watson/SNS Group/SRU
Ally Hogg has been recalled from the wilderness to help Scotland A against England Saxons tonight. Picture: Craig Watson/SNS Group/SRU

It happened in November 2009 when Hogg, then still just 26 and in the prime of his rugby life, was left out of the Scotland squad after a five-year, 48-cap run in which he had been close to an automatic selection for the national side. Just to add an element of intrigue to the affair, the axe was wielded by Andy Robinson, who had seemed to be Hogg's greatest admirer when the two worked together at Edinburgh.

At the time it seemed Hogg was being given a gentle reminder that no player is undroppable. The expectation was that he would resume his customary place in the Scotland side for the following Six Nations. What actually happened, though, was that he joined the ranks of rugby's disappeared: internal exile with Edinburgh before he cut his losses and headed south to Newcastle Falcons instead.

A rugby technician could explain Hogg's utility value might have been his greatest strength at one time, but that the modern game demanded specialists. A reasonable argument, but one that doesn't stack up when you look at the back row facing Ireland in Dublin on Sunday and see three players who have all played at the top level in different positions to the ones they will occupy in the Aviva Stadium. In any case, even if Hogg could not buy a start, isn't he just the sort of bloke you would want on your bench?

The suspicion remains that Robinson and Hogg had a parting of the ways on other levels. Asked if he was happy to see a change in the Scotland coaching set-up - a move that led to his return to the Scotland fold and a place in the A team that will take on England Saxons at Scotstoun tonight - a conspiratorial look crossed Hogg's features. "Your words," he smiled. "Not mine."

Pressed further, he said he tried to get to the bottom of the matter with Robinson. "I tried to speak to him," Hogg explained. "I phoned him a few times but he never got back to me.

"That's the way it is in professional sport, it happens to a lot of players. It's one of the things you have to take on the chin. Sometimes coaches don't like you and there's not much you can do about it.

"A new regime has come in. They have looked at the performances I've been putting in for Newcastle and think I've been playing quite well."

Time, it must be said, is against Hogg. He celebrated his 31st birthday 11 days ago and is now entering the evening of his career. He will have to get his skates on if he is to fulfil his ambition of reaching a half-century of caps for his country.

You wouldn't bet against him doing it. Battle-hardened he may be, but wizened he is not. There is something enduringly coltish about Hogg's style of play, a perpetual reminder of the prodigious talent that earned him a place on the bench for Scotland while he was still just a teenager.

"I'd love to make 50 caps," he said. "It's been four years since I last played for a Scotland test team and it is a massive incentive for me.

"Jonathan Humphreys [the Scotland forwards coach] came down to have a look because we've got a few Scottish boys in Newcastle. He came to see them and speak to them as well. He spoke to me about what he wanted me to work on and why I hadn't been involved.

"Then he phoned to say he would like me to be involved in the A team. It's nice to be back."

Hogg was in the crowd at Newcastle's Kingston Park for last year's fixture, when Scotland A dogged it out in filthy conditions to beat the Saxons 13-9. As the weather forecast for Glasgow is predicting something along the same lines tonight, does Hogg expect the same sort of game he saw a year ago?

"It looks like it's going to be the same, if not worse, according to the forecast," he laughed. "I think the pitch will be the same. Scotstoun is not the best, is it?

"But we want to play some rugby because we have some moves and we know what we want to do."

The side will be led by Jonny Gray, fully 12 years his junior, but the coach Shade Munro has told Hogg to bring his experience to bear. Hogg is happy to do that, as he has done in training all week, but his sights are still set on higher things.

"I'm pleased to be in," he said quietly. "All I can do now is take my opportunity, play as well as I can and see where it goes from there."

TEAM. Scotland A (v England Saxons, Scotstoun Stadium, Glasgow, tonight, 7.30)

J Cuthbert (Edinburgh); D Fife (Edinburgh), M Bennett (Glasgow Warriors), A Grove (Worcester Warriors), B McGuigan (Glasgow Warriors); G Tonks (Edinburgh), H Pyrgos (Glasgow Warriors); G Reid (Glasgow Warriors), F Brown (Glasgow Warriors), J Welsh (Glasgow Warriors), K Low (London Irish), J Gray (captain, Glasgow Warriors), R Harley (Glasgow Warriors), B Cowan (London Irish), A Hogg (Newcastle Falcons)

Substitutes K Bryce (Glasgow Warriors), A Allan (Edinburgh), E Kalman (Glasgow Warriors), O Atkins (Edinburgh), T Holmes (Glasgow Warriors), G Hart (Edinburgh), T Heathcote (Bath), R Vernon (Glasgow Warriors)

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