Stuart Hogg: 'I was Six Nations player of the year in 2016 & 2017 and in horrendous shape'

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland
Scotland captain Stuart Hogg
Stuart Hogg enjoyed captaining Scotland during the Six Nations despite a sticky start

It wouldn't constitute live sport as such, but had the cameras been trained on Stuart Hogg as he struggled manfully to piece together his kids' trampoline last week then it would have been wildly entertaining none the less.

The way he tells it, putting France in their place at Murrayfield was a whole lot easier than putting springs in the right spots in his garden.

"I'm not a man for building stuff," he says, self-mockingly. To illustrate that point he says there's a toolbox in his garage and it's pink and the reason it's pink is because it belongs to his wife Gill as she's the one who gets stuff done in the Hogg household.

"She does everything, but I was determined to put this trampoline together," he says. "I lost my head a few times, I'm not going to lie. Took me more than three hours. It got quite tense out there. I got it done just before the kids came home from nursery. I said to them, 'I built it, so I'm having the first jump'. You can get some serious height on this thing."

Like most of us, Hogg is staying at home and getting on with his work as best he can. His garage is being turned into a gym - "a place to train and a place to hide" - as he waits for news of what's to become of the rugby season.

The rest of the Premiership with Exeter? The summer tour with Scotland? The game against Wales? "What will be, will be," he says. "We'll do whatever the experts tell us to do."

'Finn will play for Scotland soon'

These past months have been eventful, to put it mildly. Firstly, there was the unwelcome turbulence of Finngate - a split between a player he counts as a great friend and a coach he describes as world class. As the new captain of Scotland, he could have done without it.

"I was gutted with what happened," he says. "Finn and I are very close and it was great to hear that himself and Gregor are in a much better place now. Long may that continue.

"Finn will play for Scotland soon. There might have to be some dark conversations but we'll get there. He'll realise that things have happened and can't quite happen like that again. He's old enough and ugly enough to know that. There's no doubt whatsoever that he'll be back. He's very, very popular and he's an incredible player and I think he'll be even better when he comes back because Adam (Hastings) and himself will push each other all the way."

Then, there was the mishap in Ireland, the dropped ball with the Irish line at his mercy in their opening match of the Six Nations. We could see the angst on his face and hear the disappointment in his voice, but none of us understood what damage it did to him. "It was devastating because it was a moment of stupidity," he says.

"I'm my own worst critic, I know when I've made a mistake, I don't need people to tell me. The problem is me being the person I am is that I listen to what people have to say. I could get 99 brilliant comments and one person will abuse me and that will be the one that I focus on. I can take the stick, but when it becomes repetitive and poisonous that's when a line is crossed."

Giving up on social media 'refreshing'

He says that since the turn of the year he's been fighting the urge to engage on social media. He used to do it all the time. First thing he'd do after a game was reach for his phone and search his name on Twitter, just to see the comments. No good ever comes of that.

He branches out now into a wider point about the potentially corrosive impact of these platforms on sports folk. "I had a conversation with a few people about this the other day. I just wonder are players playing within themselves sometimes because of the potential dog's abuse they might get on social media if they try something risky and it doesn't come off," he says. "Are they restricting themselves because they know what the backlash will be like?

"I've been through it. I've made mistakes on a pitch and I'm thinking, 'What am I going to to do later on when I click on social media and I'm getting attacked'. And I'm thinking about that during the game. That's completely wrong, but it's the way I am. Or was. I know there a lot of people who'll go in the changing room after a match and search for their name on social media. I was really bad for that.

"I've read all sorts of things about me being past my best and it hurts. I've been off the boil the last couple of years but what do I put that down to? Is it injury, because I've had a few. Or am I concentrating too much on what people have to say and then I'm scared to try things on the field?

"The best thing I've done is hand my Twitter over to my agency. I've no access to it. I used to enjoy having chats with people but there was a problem because I kept replying to stuff that I shouldn't have been replying to and then other people would say, 'Well, it's your own fault for getting involved'.

"It was refreshing when I gave it up. It was only at the turn of the year I did it. I was terrible for searching my name. I did it many, many times. Practically after every single game I played. I stay away now. I don't need the negativity."

A few weeks after his faux pas against Ireland, he played for Exeter against Gloucester and says he was nervous before that game. He'd butchered a try in Dublin and had "lacked aggression" in dealing with a wickedly bouncing ball against England that led to a scrum and the game-defining try.

He was anxious and was playing cautiously that night against Gloucester. The away fans were giving him some welly and he was trying to get through it without making an error. The mindset was all wrong. "Everything changed in the last 20 minutes," he reveals. "I came out of myself and scored a really good try and hung on for dear life as I grounded the ball, which was just a bit of fun.

"It was the first time in two years that I'd run over the line to score. The other tries I'd got were just me chasing kick-throughs, ones that I had very little influence on. So that try against Gloucester meant a huge amount to me and I went home that night and said to Gill, 'I think I'm going to score another one like that very soon'. I just had a feeling."

And he did - in Rome. It was the score that set Scotland on their way to victory and the 20th of his Test career. He followed it up with one of the most complete performances in all of his 76 caps when France's Slam chase was halted at Murrayfield. Hogg was immense that day.

These are bright times for him. The move to Exeter is going well, the switch to captaincy with Scotland has made him a better player when the fear was that the pressure would diminish him. It's done the opposite. "Grabbed it by the nuts and got on with it," he asserts.

Wake-up call on Lions tour

He's lost some weight and it suits him. The pace is back with a vengeance, as Italy found out to their cost. For club and country, he looks like himself again.

He laughs at the mention of the weight issue. "When I got Six Nations player of year in 2016 and 2017 I was 101 kilos and my skinfold (body fat percentage) was ridiculous. Horrendous. I was in heinous shape. Well, maybe not heinous, but I wasn't in great condition. It was only when I went on the Lions tour in 2017 that I realised what it was all about.

"I looked at some of those boys who could play in my position and they had abs sitting on abs and I was like, 'Holy heck, I'm in bad nick compared to this lot'. Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly, Liam Williams - all in much better condition. I had a tee-shirt on one day and Owen Farrell asked me if it was a thermal top because it was that tight. I thought, 'Right, something's got to change here'. Before that, I'd got it into my head that I should put on weight to see if I could run over the top of people but all I was doing was getting battered and then coming off after 60 minutes because I was too heavy and I was cramping. You're always learning in this game."

The abrupt end to the Six Nations was understandable and frustrating. Normally with a game to go, the squad is tired and cranky and a bit fed-up looking at each other, but it was different this time. "We were enjoying it," says Hogg. "We believed we could win in Cardiff.

"We'll just have to pick it up again whenever we can, but we're a close-knit group and I think we've made progress. I look at the way Adam has stepped up in place of Finn, I look at Rory Sutherland, who I think was our best player across the four games after years of tough times with injury. I look at all the boys, experienced or inexperienced, working incredibly hard to try to make things better. I see how much it means to them.

"It's an honour to captain these guys. We'd have liked another game, but that couldn't be helped. The summer tour may or not happen, but whenever we come back we'll be hungry for it, I can promise you that."

In the meantime, he won't be found arguing with people on Twitter or opening up the toolbox. He'll be in his new gym preparing for the next challenge, whenever it comes.

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