Nervous, uncomfortable and excited - Stuart Hogg on playing at stand-off for Scotland
The Scotland captain played stand-off as a schoolboy but his professional appearances in the playmaker’s role have been fleeting and he was honest enough to admit he is approaching the match with a degree of trepidation.
“I’m really nervous about the game but to get the best out of people you need to put them in uncomfortable positions,” he said.
“I’m happy to play at 10, but I’m not going to go into the game tomorrow with as much confidence as I would if I was at 15. But I’m excited about the challenge of not being comfortable at times, and hopefully I’ll bring the best out myself and the team.”
Russell’s head knock in the defeat against Ireland last weekend saw him removed from the action with around 20 remaining and Hogg filled in. He did similar during the win over England last month while Russell was in the sin-bin and also deputised when the stand-off was injured during the victory over Wales last October.
Hogg acquitted himself well on each occasion but it is a different challenge to start a Test match at 10, especially when he has another ‘newbie’ alongside him at scrum-half. Scott Steele is making the first Scotland start of his career but at least he is well known to Hogg - the pair are childhood friends.
If Gregor Townsend’s team selection represents something of a gamble, Scotland supporters can take comfort from the fact that Italy have not won a Six Nations match for six years.
Not that Hogg is getting complacent. He and Hamish Watson played that day, the only two members of the current side who were part of the ignominious 22-19 defeat at Murrayfield.
“We know that this is the game they always come gunning for,” said the Scotland captain. “The last time they won in the Six Nations was here in 2015.
“We know very well how good they can be so the important thing is that we start really well, get on the front foot and make sure we’re clinical. If we can do that we will gain confidence and build nicely. But the longer Italy are in the game they will grow in confidence.”
Hogg feels Italy’s results - they’ve conceded 40-plus points in each of their Six Nations defeats this year - do not reflect how well they have played. However, it would be a shock of huge proportions if Scotland were to lose to the tournament’s whipping boys.
As well as adapting to a new position, captaining the team and bedding in a new scrum-half, Hogg will also assume place-kicking duties.
“It’s another challenge,” he said. “Last week, after Finn picked up the head knock, they asked me to kick and I was a little bit nervous about it, but I’ve worked hard with Chris Paterson this week at just getting the technique spot on – not rushing.”
The Scotland captain may have made his name as a swashbuckling full-back but his formative years in Hawick were spent at stand-off. It was on a visit to the elite Struan training camp in Perthshire that the teenage Hogg changed positions, initially to outside centre.
It was no great tactical masterstroke but rather a desire to play in the same team as his friend, Stuart Edwards, now the Heriot’s stand-off.
“I was about 15, I just wanted to be on the same team as Stuart Edwards, who was a 10 as well, so I changed my position to 13,” explained Hogg.
“I played 10 all the way through school and the age-grade stuff. It was literally because I wanted to be in my mate’s team at Struan camp that I changed.”
He moves to full-back early in his professional career and has stayed there more or less since.
Hogg says he has leaned heavily on Russell this week, soaking up as much knowledge as possible.
“He’s watched a fair amount of rugby for us, he’s analysed training and had suggestions about where we can learn and improve. So, he’s been absolutely brilliant and I would expect nothing less from him because he is a world class talent who cares massively about this team.”
Hogg admits he found it difficult deputising for Russell against Ireland compared to his previous cameos at stand-off.
“When I jumped in at 10 in the Wales game it was a case of us closing out the game for the last 15 minutes, and the England game was similar because it was all about running down the clock until Finn came back on.
“Last week was probably the time that I struggled the most because of the fact that I forgot at times that I was playing 10.
“When you move from 15 to 10 during the match, you are there for a couple of phases and then you can runaway and hide again at the back.
“So that was the thing Finn and I discussed after the game, and he went through the analysis with me – you have to stay engaged for every single phase, out the back, with the forwards, making sure you organise the next phase.
“So, that’s something I’ve worked really, really hard on this week.
“In training, we’ve got ourselves in some good positions, but the speed of ball has been absolutely electric because it’s not full on.
“I think tomorrow I’ll have a little bit more time to get myself in good positions to make sure we are going forward.
“I’m hugely excited about it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m nervous about how it is going to go, but I’m mainly excited for it.”