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Just how good is Stuart Hogg

Earlier in his career – and he’s still only 24 for heaven’s sake – the story that Stuart Hogg was distantly related to the late great Georgie Best was doing the rounds. It was never, to my knowledge, fully stood up but I’m not sure that matters any more.

Stuart Hogg – blood relative or not, different code or not  – encapsulates the spirit of Best more than any British or Irish rugby player of the modern era.

There is magic afoot when Hogg goes to work so much so that keen Scotland rugby fan JK Rowling tweeted last year to confirm she was bestowing Wizard status on the Scotland full-back. And in her fantasy world there is no higher compliment.

When Hogg is in possession a switch is flicked and the whole tone of the game is raised. Off hand I can only think of Jonah and Joost who have had the same instant effect in the professional game, perhaps Christian Cullen in his pomp for a couple of years circa 1997-98.

Anything can happen regardless of the score, weather conditions and what has gone before. He fashions tries and passes from nothing and it will be a major surprise if, win lose or draw at Twickenham on Saturday, he doesn’t leave one little nugget of a memory we will be re-running in our minds for years to come. He makes mistakes but then again so did Georgie Best.

Hogg is the latest in a long line of brilliant Scotland full-backs and is also the epitome of the clever bag-of-tricks player that the Borders have always produced. He is a proud son of Hawick which is Bill McLaren territory and how the great man would have enjoyed trying to conjure up the right descriptive phrase to do Hogg justice.

Not so long ago Hogg would have made his name with Hawick and the Borders and the outside world would instantly have had a better handle of his origins because Hawick produces rather distinctive rugby players, best epitomised by Jim Renwick and Colin Deans. In fact if you morphed the guile, steps and pace of Renwick with the strength, roving instincts and relentless enthusiasm of Deans I rather fancy that leaves you with Stuart Hogg.

As it is, Hogg has played all his senior rugby over in Glasgow where by great good fortune he was first mentored by Sean Lineen and then fellow Borderer Gregor Townsend. That’s a pair of the cleverest rugby players ever to pull on a Scotland shirt who between them have every skill in the book covered.

From the outset Hogg found himself in a team trying to play positive attacking rugby and although to the wider world it might seem Glasgow have  really matured only in the last two seasons they were playing stacks of fine rugby before that, albeit not quite so consistently.

“How do I assess Stuart?” muses Townsend. “Strong, powerful legs, proper sprinter’s speed and a player who can go up through the gears depending on what opens up in front of him. He operates best in the back three but has the skills of a fly-half where, of course, we have played him a number of times. He was up to 100kg at one time and is good in contact although he’s down a bit from that now.

“I first saw Stuart play at the age of 16 at the Gala Sevens and the skillset was basically in place already although we continue to fine-tune it at Glasgow. He’s always been a great passer and had that ability to produce pinpoint kicks on the hoof. That little grubber for Tommy Seymour against Wales was rugby perfection.

“He never needs any prodding, he’s always the last off the training ground, finishing off with some long-range goalkicks and dropped goals from halfway. We’ve seen some 50metre penalties already but look out for the drop goals, he will produce one in a Test match sometime soon. I hope he sticks with his long-range kicking, it’s a good extra string to his bow.

“There is room for improvement, of course. Recently he has got much better at realising when it is not on, even for a player with his gifts. He’s better now at giving the percentage pass when needed and running a support line rather than going for a miracle play straight away. I rate him as a last line of defence, he’s a heavy hitting tackler but you can be exposed at full-back and get it wrong sometimes.”

Hogg hit Test rugby running, literally, in 2012 and has never really stopped. There have been 15 tries to date – many of them crackers and probably the same number of assists.

Those who worry a little about his defence might do well to remember a fine backs-to-the-wall defensive display against England last time Scotland were at Twickenham. It’s probably down to experience more than anything else and despite some perceived failing in this area it’s still very difficult to see anybody else starting at 15 for the Lions this summer.

And, of course, he’s quite fiery and there was that sending-off against Wales in 2014 when he took Dan Biggar out with a dangerous late tackle. Referee Jerome Garces originally decided it was yellow but after the action flicked up on the big screen he upgraded it to red. Hogg took his medicine – a three-week ban – and has successfully reined in that side of his temperament ever since.

Hogg lives off his emotions and instincts, it’s what makes him such a devastating attacker and it is that same emotion that does also sometimes reveal an abrasive side. It comes with the territory but finding the right balance is always a work in progress.

But back to analysing the player himself and the threat he could pose to England next week: He has length of the field pace and often goes looking for the intercept, he has an odd looking but hugely effective hitchkick step which he normally uses moving left to right. But if it is one skill that sets Hogg aside from just about every British and Irish back currently on display it his clever, often inspired, passing.

We saw that to good effect in both tries against Wales last week, that perfect flick on from Finn Russell’s fired flat pass to send Tim Visser on for a try while, earlier in the game, he delayed his pass perfectly to send Visser racing away before the flying Dutchman put Seymour diving into the corner.

Hogg, and the Lions selectors, might note this seems to work uncannily well with Visser and among the highlights of last year’s tournament was his overhead batted pass to make the try for the big wing that finally did for France at Murrayfield.

Hogg, of course, also scored a sparkling try against the French that day while his score against Ireland when he collected a high ball and made his way at high pace to the line was probably the best try of the 2016 tournament.

No wonder he was approached to put his name forward for the Great Britain Sevens team for Rio but with a summer wedding to partner Gillian and their son Archie on the way, he decided enough was enough for one season. Time to rest up but it would be great, all things being equal, to see him spearhead the GB challenge at the 2020 Olympics in Japan.

That’s for the distant future. For now a rare Scotland win at Twickenham is the on his mind.

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