• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

No chance to Hogg the ball unless pack can provide service

Hawick secretary John Thorburn's tongue was presumably firmly in his cheek when he described Scotland's encounter with Italy in Rome as merely the warm-up act for his club's rescheduled Premiership match with Gala at Mansfield Park a couple of hours later, but Stuart Hogg's attachment to his Teviotdale roots is so strong that he would probably ask for more time before putting the two contests in any order of importance.

Stuart Hogg practises kicking in Italy yesterday; compared with the Murrayfield quagmire, the Scots who trained in the Stadio Olimpico must have felt like greyhounds released out of their traps. Picture: SNS/SRU
Stuart Hogg practises kicking in Italy yesterday; compared with the Murrayfield quagmire, the Scots who trained in the Stadio Olimpico must have felt like greyhounds released out of their traps. Picture: SNS/SRU

For Hogg, down time in the wake of Scotland's 20-0 defeat by England a fortnight ago was only ever likely to mean back-down-to-Hawick time. And, with it, the knowledge that he would have to run the gauntlet of some of the most perceptive, opinionated and demanding rugby followers on earth.

"I've been home," Hogg nodded as he basked in the early afternoon sunshine in the Stadio Olimpico yesterday. "Nothing's changed. You know what Hawick is like - everyone has something to say. Some of it you take on board and some of it you put to the back of your mind."

Tales of underachieving players being thrashed by brolly-wielding old women on Hawick High Street are mostly apocryphal. But while Hogg has enough knowledge of his own to be able to be selective about what advice he should take on board, going back to his rugby home in the Scottish game's heartlands left him in no doubt about the anger and frustration that Scottish fans are feeling right now.

Losing to England is one thing, losing so feebly as Scotland did at Murrayfield this year is quite another. And all the worse given the widespread conviction that players like Hogg have a level of raw footballing talent that is the equal of any other side in the championship.

Last season, in his first full Six Nations campaign, Hogg announced himself with tries in Scotland's first two matches. This season, at the same stage of the tournament, he can reflect only on 160 minutes of rugby in which he hasn't had a sniff.

Not that he should carry the can for that. In victory, outside backs are happy to take the credit and glory earned by the efforts of their forwards, but on this occasions the Scottish strike runners should have no hesitation in passing the blame back to a pack that has misfired in the set-piece and in contact, robbing the side of possession, momentum, field position and rhythm.

When coach Scott Johnson was asked if the lineout and breakdown had been areas of interest in training over the past two weeks, his response suggested the forwards had been doing little else.

"It is a good place to start," Johnson replied. "We need a good set piece to have ball to play off. In the opposition zone, we are not getting good ball. It would be silly not to concentrate on it. It is paramount we get the ball."

At least Scotland will have a pitch and conditions which might allow them to do something with any possession they win. After the quagmire of Murrayfield, Hogg - who had been especially scathing about conditions underfoot after the Calcutta Cup match - and his colleagues must have felt like greyhounds being let out of their traps as they went through some light practice in the vast bowl of the Rome stadium yesterday.

"I think it will suit our game plan a lot more than the Murrayfield pitch did," said Hogg, in a bid to win the Understatement of the Championship award.

"Quick ball is something we lacked against England, and you could say against Ireland at times," he continued. "When we did get quick ball against Ireland we looked dangerous, so that's exactly what we want again. Hopefully, we can exploit [Italy's] narrow defence. If we get quick ball on a plate then we can do some damage."

The changes Johnson has made to the pack unquestionably have their origins in those issues. As determined as the team's management have been to deflect criticism away from Ross Ford's lineout work, the hooker also looked one-paced and predictable in the loose against England, while Scott Lawson, who starts today, seemed to up the tempo when he was on the ball.

Similarly, Dave Denton's bash-it-up style made him a conspicuous figure against England, but not a terrifically effective one as he was carrying the ball into a well-organised defence. At least Johnnie Beattie, who takes Denton's place at No.8, can be relied upon to keep the Italians guessing.

More than anything, though, it is a day for Richie Gray to silence his critics with the kind of performance that does justice to the combination of physical attributes that almost no other player in Scottish rugby history has enjoyed. Johnson has hinted in the past that Gray should add a layer of application to his playing persona, but his praise yesterday for the 34-times-capped 24-year-old was issued without any qualification.

Johnson said: "Richie allows us to secure a bit of ball and this deck [pitch] will suit him too. It is fast and he is a great athlete, there is no doubt about that.

"Richie is very good defensively when the game opens up and he does not miss much as he is a good athlete. That is a very good part of his game. His strength in certain areas allows us to be a bit more expansive."

Gray, has something to prove. But so, too, do all the other players after what happened against England.

They have come in for some ferocious criticism over the past two weeks, and if fear is the spur they need to claim their first Six Nations win of the season then so be it.

And if they lose they should probably keep away from Hawick for a few weeks.

Contextual targeting label: 
Sport

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

214704