By his own electric standards, Stuart Hogg has had a quiet NatWest Six Nations and is unlikely to make it three player of the tournaments in a row. However, the Scotland full-back believes his form is in solid, if less eye-catching shape than the previous two years.
There was a high-profile error in Dublin in the weekend with a poor pass to Blair Kinghorn in the second half of the 28-8 defeat to eventual champions Ireland and a noticeable lack of the kind of searing breaks which lit up the past two campaigns.
No tries so far either for the top-scorer in the current squad, with the 15-cap centre Huw Jones creeping up to lie just seven behind the Hawick man’s 17 in 59 appearances for his country.
Despite all of the above, Hogg is happy with his overall contribution to a competition in which Scotland have won two and lost two, believing that the development of Gregor Townsend’s ultra-attacking gameplan means that the onus is no longer on him to sprinkle the magic dust.
“I’ve loved it,” said Hogg yesterday when asked how he felt his own individual Six Nations has gone. “I’ve maybe not made the breaks that everyone’s used to so people say I’m having a stinker, but I’m fairly happy with the way I’m playing – I’ve done what I have to do in the games.
“Obviously, I’d love to be making these clean breaks but Huw Jones seems to be stealing them all off me!”
Jones denied Hogg his 18th Test try at the weekend with another poor pass when the full-back had a stroll under the posts there for the taking. The 25-year-old Lion believes the events at the Aviva Stadium will prove a valuable learning experience as the Scots build towards the 2019 World Cup.
“Everybody makes mistakes,” said Hogg. “That pass I should have put Blair [Kinghorn] in the corner but we were very fortunate to get another opportunity straight away with that scrum penalty [from which Kinghorn did score].
“These things happen, the boys are aware that individually they have made mistakes. For us now it is the chance to learn and improve so that hopefully if we get that situation again, we will not be man in the same mistakes.”
Hogg may not be getting as much limelight this year, but is adamant that he is enjoying being part of a back division which now contains threats across the pitch.
“I’m loving it,” he said. “The boys are playing incredibly well and Gregor is very much attack-focused. We analyse teams on opportunities we get in attack and you’ll see that in the set-piece plays we try to execute – getting our fast guys on the ball with time and space.
“And you can see that we can get ourselves out of tricky situations as well. Huw Jones’ second try against England, there was a third phase part of that play but he’s executed it incredibly well in the second phase and managed to score.”
Hogg has taken on line-kicking duties to ease the burden on stand-off and Glasgow team-mate Finn Russell and believes he is maturing into a player who sees the bigger picture rather than looking for individual glory.
“I think you can see that in my performance in terms of if I have not had the ball for a while and they kick to me,” he continued. “It is not trying to get an absolute belter of a line-break or a try – it is doing the correct thing for the team.
“That is something I’ve learned over the last few years – there is a time or a place. Me trying to keep the ball in play as much as I can is all well and good, but the boys up-front might be knackered so it is sometimes about getting the carrot in front of the donkey with a clever kicking game. It is about being mature.”
Scotland now look to finish the tournament on a high with a win over Italy in Rome, but Hogg hesitates when asked if he would have taken three wins out of five at the start of the year.
“It is difficult to say, you look at every single game as one you want to win,” he said. “You have your short-term goals week on week but longer term the goal is to win the Six Nations and we have come up short there.
“We concentrate on it game by game and when we start to get in a situation where we can win it, we start concentrating on that. It is not the issue, we will see how it goes next year.”
When it comes to taking that next step to winning away and going from a credible team to one with genuine championship aspirations, Hogg doesn’t think there is much of the puzzle that is missing.
“Not a great deal,” he said. “We have possibly left 21 or 28 points out there at the weekend and gifted them 14 potentially. Take that out of our game and execute our gameplan and we will be winning games. It is making sure we are not making the same mistakes week on week but making sure we are learning improving and getting better.”
Asked if Scotland have the mental toughness to make that leap, Hogg was emphatic.
“Absolutely, end of. Absolutely,” being his verdict.
An improved finishing position on last year could be secured with a good win in Rome yet Hogg insists that getting that third win is more important than third place in the table.
“We’re just concentrating on getting the victory and if we do that then we are three from five and we give ourselves an opportunity to finish as high up as we possibly can.
“We want to win titles and this time last week we were very much in the situation where we could do that, so we viewed the Ireland game as a semi-final and, unfortunately, we came up just short.
“I think we’re going in the right direction. The way we try and play – quick tempo, keep the ball in play for long periods of time, back our fitness – we’re going to win games.
“We’re on the right track, but it is all about learning and improving and looking to get better and better – and ultimately picking up titles.”