Not long after Exeter Chiefs had completed the most satisfying away display in their European history in La Rochelle last weekend, the newly arrived Stuart Hogg felt Rob Baxter’s arm around his shoulder. “He said to me: ‘That’s why you signed here, for days like that,’” recalls Hogg, now resident in Devon having relocated south from his native Scotland. “He was right. I loved it.”
There is a glint in Hogg’s eyes that bodes ill for his old team Glasgow Warriors on Saturday. A few months ago the high-class full-back was unsure how he would feel playing against his former side, in whose colours he spent nine popular years.
Now he cannot wait, his competitive edge sharpened by the Chiefs’ fast start in Pool 2. “The buzz going round the club after last Saturday’s game was just unbelievable. The only annoying thing was having to wait another week to play again.”
Hogg already feels he has landed on his feet in England’s south west. Aside from being slightly unnerved by the centuries-old tradition of blazing tar barrels being carried through the streets of his new local town of Ottery St Mary – “My wife asked me what it was like and I actually struggled to describe it” – he has settled in well, rising above the Japan flags initially stuck on his locker to remind him of Scotland’s disappointing World Cup campaign.
Exeter wanted someone capable of making a difference in big games and, despite the cries of “Haggis!” and “The oldest 27-year-old you’ll see!” echoing around Sandy Park’s corridors, they believe they have found him. “The best thing is how much impact he’s having on the guys around him,” reports Rob Hunter, the Chiefs’ assistant coach. “He’s an outstanding player but he’d creating space for others because you’ve got to mark him.”
It could be argued Hogg, a very distant relative of the great George Best, is the highest-profile Scottish international to move south from Glasgow since Kenny Dalglish joined Liverpool from Celtic in 1977. That arranged marriage turned out well and Hogg is similarly optimistic. “It’s been one of the best decisions I have ever made. I was a bit scared coming down here … having to learn everyone’s names and the structures but the boys have welcomed me with open arms. In Glasgow I was in the concrete jungle, whereas here I am out in the sticks with plenty of countryside and fresh air. As a family we are settled and really enjoying it.”
For a proud son of the Borders that is a significant plus. Even his first out-of-season trips to the untropical beaches of Exmouth and Sidmouth have proved oddly therapeutic. “The sea is bloody freezing but I went in up to my waist and the next day my legs felt amazing – there’s method in the madness.” Above all, though, he is enjoying the fresh mental stimulus. “I like being challenged on a daily basis. I was brought up in a family that work incredibly hard for everything we’ve got. That’s something I’ll continue to do throughout my whole career. I always believe you’re never the complete rugby player.”
In his case, the formula for playing his best rugby is simple. While impressed by the “unbelievable” attention to detail at Exeter – “We sit for a fair amount of time in meetings but ultimately that’s the reason why we’re winning games” – 72 appearances for Scotland and two Lions tours long ago taught Hogg how to maximise his talents. “A big thing for me is enjoying my rugby. When I’m playing well it’s because I’m happy and I’m having some fun with my friends. That’ll mean a lot of ball touches, a lot of involvements in the game.” If he, Henry Slade and Jack Nowell can all click in unison, Chiefs fans will be in heaven.
This should be to Scotland’s advantage, too. As with Finn Russell at Racing 92, anything that helps his players improve is a bonus for their national coach Gregor Townsend. As Hogg puts it: “When I told Gregor I was keen to come down here he was delighted for me. He knew I’d be playing in a quality side, be well looked after and ultimately learn things to take back to Scotland that would improve us there as well.”
Glasgow will not necessarily see it that way on Saturday with their assistant coach Kenny Murray suggesting the Warriors will be keen to investigate Hogg’s defence. A couple of missed tackles at Worcester three weeks ago have clearly not gone unnoticed but, then again, Hogg is already making a conspicuous difference to Exeter’s long-range kicking options.
An injury-strewn couple of seasons have also sharpened his appetite while there is another significant reason why Hogg comes across as older than his 27 years. On his ribs are inscribed the initials of his childhood friend Richard Wilkinson, who tragically died in a high-speed car accident on a Borders country road 10 years ago last April. Hogg, having played a game of rock, paper, scissors with his mate for the passenger seat, was in the back seat and managed to scramble from the overturned vehicle by forcing its rear window. He has done his best to offer emotional support to the Wilkinson family ever since and has helped the campaign to reduce deaths on rural roads.
That kind of perspective should help in overcoming the psychological barrier of playing against old friends this weekend. While he has received a message from DTH van der Merwe apologising for a throwaway remark about looking to wind up Hogg and sledge him about his hair, both he and his coaches know he is an obvious target. “We’re focused on playing well for him this weekend,” confirms Hunter. “Obviously it’s a big deal for him.”
Ultimately, though, Hogg is concentrating on his new team’s needs. “We feel we’re in a good place after last week but now’s the time for actions to back it up and put ourselves in the driving seat in Europe. We’ve only qualified from the pool once so that’s a huge motivating factor for us.” Might a wee celebratory dram be taken if Glasgow are beaten? “It’s cider country down here, isn’t it? I’ll be more than happy to try one, hopefully after a good win this weekend.”