Stuart Hogg is growing into the Scotland captaincy after collecting his third trophy in as many weeks
On Saturday in Llanelli, Hogg was presented with the Doddie Weir Cup after Scotland’s 14-10 win over Wales, a shiny new bauble to sit alongside the Premiership and Champions Cup he and Gray won with Exeter Chiefs.
Quite a haul for the former Glasgow duo whose success seems to be rubbing off on the rest of the national squad.
Hogg is growing into the captaincy. He had a tricky start to his tenure, dealing with the fallout from the Finn Russell episode and then skippering Scotland to an agonising defeat in Ireland when he dropped the ball over the line with a try at his mercy.
Eight months on and the Six Nations has finally ended, and with a flourish from Scotland.
Hogg’s increasing influence has not been lost on Gregor Townsend.
“He brought a lot of energy this week,” said the Scotland coach. “I did say to him in the changing room that it’s not like this, winning a trophy, every week. Jonny, too, because he is living the dream. He’s only been down at Exeter a couple of months and he’s won his third trophy.
“It has been a really memorable time for them. It was in the back of my mind that energy levels might be tougher [against Wales] after the emotion of those last two weeks to be playing in such a big game, but I thought they both got better and better as we went through the game.
“Stuart had more of a role in the second half. Jonny too. That was really pleasing. They are a strong influence on how the team works. They are leaders in different ways. They both allow others to lead. It has been great for Stuart after going through a difficult moment in Ireland that he has got the best out of the team and the team has improved under his captaincy.”
October has proved a fruitful month for the duo. And for Scotland, too. The victory at Parc y Scarlets must rank as one of the most satisfying in Townsend’s time as coach.
His Scotland sides had shown plenty of try-scoring flair to achieve notable results against Australia (twice), England (twice) and France but this was a win built on steely resolve and a formidable display by the forwards.
Townsend had a bruising World Cup, with Scotland failing to qualify from the group stage for only the second time in nine tournaments. He took stock and recast his side, giving it a durability that was missing in Japan.
“I always felt it was possible,” he said of the win in Wales. “I felt that with the players we have and the lessons we’re learning we’ll be able to play more consistently.
“There was a lot of thinking and reflection from me and others after the World Cup - things that we had to change, based around consistency and being in positions to win games as we go into the final 20 minutes.
“We’ve always had the ability, I believe, to score 14 points in two minutes as we did in the game at Twickenham a year and a half ago. The players we have in the team can make those things happen, but the stubbornness and hard work and the set-piece power was a pleasant surprise.
“We have players really taking control at the set-piece and the coaches we have in that area have probably surpassed what I thought we could achieve this season, but I have always had big belief in this team.”
Scotland also had the weight of history against them. Much was made of their failure to win in Wales for 18 long years, an excruciating run that encompassed ten straight defeats in Cardiff. The switch to Llanelli was forced upon the sides by the coronavirus pandemic and the absence of fans made for a strange atmosphere but Townsend saw plenty in the performance to gladden his heart.
“It has not been easy to miss the chance to play Wales seven months ago when we had really built momentum. We maybe didn’t play as fluently as we would have liked on Saturday but we still had that determination that we weren’t going to lose.”
Scotland dominated possession and territory at a wind-lashed Parc y Scarlets but they still had to come from behind to win. Wales led 7-3 in the first half through Rhys Carre’s converted try before Adam Hastings’ penalty reduced the arrears to a single point just before the break.
The decisive moment came midway through the second period when replacement hooker Stuart McInally scored a try from a well worked driving lineout maul. That put Scotland 11-7 in front - Hastings missed the conversion - but Leigh Halfpenny’s penalty turned it into a one-point game heading into the final 15 minutes.
In truth, Scotland never looked like wilting and won the battle of the breakdown, with flanker Jamie Ritchie named man of the match. His late turnover saw Scotland awarded a late penalty which Hogg converted to add a little gloss. The captain finished the game at stand-off following injuries to Finn Russell, who kicked a first-half penalty, and Hastings.
So a Six Nations campaign which began with narrow defeats against Ireland and England back in February ends with victories over Italy, France and Wales and a renewed sense of belief that Scotland can go into the Autumn Nations Cup with optimism.