Glasgow Warriors v Leinster: Stuart Hogg wants to finish on high
|Pro14 final: Glasgow Warriors v Leinster|
|Venue: Celtic Park, Glasgow Date: Saturday, 25 May Kick-off: 18:30 BST|
|Coverage: Listen to BBC Radio Scotland and follow live text commentary on the BBC Sport website & app|
Stuart Hogg admitted to having a wee tear in his eye as he said his farewells to Scotstoun last Friday, the only thing staving off a full blubathon being the fact that his stay at Glasgow Warriors had just been extended by a week following the evisceration of Ulster in the Pro14 semi-final.
Saturday's final against Leinster at Celtic Park will be the last act before leaving for Exeter Chiefs - and he knows what's coming.
"I get really nervous before every game and this one isn't going to be any different, especially since it's going to be the last time I pull on the jersey and I want to make the most of it," he says. "It's actually worse than nerves. Sometimes I get a little bit scared. I do, genuinely. But I love it at the same time.
"If I was relaxed and not fussed about what's happening, I'd probably play like a bag of crap, so I want those nerves and I want to win this final. I want to finish on a high."
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'The people around this club are special'
Hogg's Glasgow story goes back to 2010, when he arrived at the club, and then into the spring of 2011, when he made his debut in a drab 16-16 draw against the Dragons at Firhill.
It all seems like a lifetime ago. The crowd that night was 1,709, against the 10,000 sell-out against Ulster on Friday and the expected 40,000-plus at Celtic Park on the weekend. Glasgow finished his debut season with six wins from 22 games in the old Magners League. They ended up 11th of 12 teams, fully 50 points behind the champions Munster, with only Aironi keeping them off the bottom.
As he's about to play his last game, that first one is something he's been thinking about.
"At one stage, there was a high crossfield kick that was heading for the far corner and I was never in a month of Sundays getting to it," he says, with a smile. "There's a photo of me running and I'm worried about the bounce of the ball, but the pitch was that boggy and sandy that the ball just sat down. I remember that well because if the ball bounced I was absolutely buggered.
"We finished second bottom that season. We played Ulster at home and they had more fans than we did. Everything's changed at this club since then.
"Everything I've achieved in the game has been as a Glasgow Warrior. The people around the club are special. They'd make you want to stay. They're friends for life. I'm excited about the next challenge but I'll be forever grateful for the opportunities I've been given here."
'I was sitting in the stand with a pint'
What an epic journey it's been, a journey that could have come to an abrupt halt halfway through when he experienced his 'difficult phase' after his first Lions tour. Coming to the end of the 2013-14 season, Hogg decided he wanted to leave Glasgow. He saw his future at Ulster and, by his own admission, behaved badly.
Gregor Townsend, the then Glasgow coach, responded by dropping him. The last time Glasgow met Leinster in a final was at the RDS Arena in 2014 and Hogg was nowhere near the matchday squad.
"I was sitting up in the stand with a pint," he says. "It was rubbish and all my own doing. At the time, I had one foot in Ulster and one foot in Glasgow.
"We all make mistakes, we all grow up. Looking back, getting that boot up the backside was probably the best thing that ever happened to me."
The following season brought the Pro12 title and Hogg was mesmeric throughout. He has never minded admitting that he's a rugby obsessive, nor has he ever made any secret of the gratitude he feels from making his living by throwing a ball around.
"The game is getting harder, everybody is getting bigger and faster, but I love it more and more," he says. "I'm not afraid to say I'm obsessed with rugby.
"It's all about continuing to learn. Rugby is changing. There are different set-piece plays, different counter-attack opportunities, different kick-off options. The exciting thing is that every team poses different threats and that's the beauty of it. No game is ever the same.
"I've changed as a player over the years. The biggest thing is the ability to catch and pass and put others into space. At times, I tried too often to pull something out of the bag to get the crowd on their feet, but now I realise that it's the basics that are most important - take and give and keep yourself in the game.
"I get great satisfaction out of scoring tries but also by putting boys away or by attracting defenders to me and creating space."
'I had an absolute shocker'
Glasgow are not the same side as last season. They were one-dimensional a year ago, a boom or bust job, fantastically entertaining on a given day but also physically and mentally frail. They've worked tirelessly on bringing more belligerence to their game without sacrificing their natural instinct to attack.
They really thought that they were in a good enough place to throw something substantial at Saracens in the quarter-final of the Champions Cup in March, but they were popgun to Sarries' bazooka. Head coach Dave Rennie monstered his players behind the scenes in the aftermath. Huw Jones, the centre, recalled Rennie using the word 'imposters' in a savage review session the following week.
"The Saracens game gave us the kick up the backside that we needed," Hogg says.
"I can't remember Dave saying that, but we probably deserved it. I was really down after that game. I had an absolute shocker. It took me a week to get over it.
"I'd worked incredibly hard to get back playing after my injury against Ireland in the Six Nations. That was my return and to play the way I did... basic skills let me down.
"When a team gets beaten, it's always difficult, but when you have a shocker into the bargain, you always look at your own performance first and it took me time to recover from that."
Glasgow managed to turn that misery to their advantage in the Pro14 run-in. Their hard edge returned and they're now playing their best stuff of the season, which is convenient because they're now facing the ultimate test - the four-time European champions who are still hurting from losing their title to Saracens a few weeks back.
"Nothing changes as to the way we want to play," says Hogg. "You often find that when teams get to play-off rugby, they shut up shop, kick the ball and try to squeeze you more than they'd normally do. We won't be doing that.
"Leinster are a cracking side with world-class individuals and you only have to look at the ball handling ability of the front row at the weekend to know what they're about - Cian Healy to Tadhg Furlong, who put Sean Cronin in for a try against Munster.
"We're fully aware of how big this is going to be. We need to front up in defence and make sure we're in their face at every single opportunity. We can't allow them time to breathe.
"It's about being squeaky clean around the breakdown and getting Nigel [Owens, the referee] on our side. It's about not making silly errors that'll give them cheap field position. They'll want to squeeze us into making mistakes but if we're disciplined at the breakdown and in our defensive line we should be grand.
"It's something that Dave has touched on over the past few months. Teams see us as a bit flash, a side that can score from anywhere but also a side that others think can be battered up front. One of our big rocks is brutality and we'll have to bring all of it to this final."
The romantic in him longs for the dream farewell, but the realist won't let him go there. He might have only one game to go as a Warrior, but he has a world of work ahead of him.