STUART Hogg was surprised, he says, to be named captain of the British & Irish Lions for their first game on South African soil.
He should not have been, because his leadership qualities have been increasingly in evidence over the past couple of years, clearly making the Scotland full-back one of the most important and influential members of Warren Gatland’s squad.
Now 29, the Hawick man has been a key player for every team he has been in since his earliest days in the game. But since becoming skipper of the national team at the start of last year, he has taken his performance to a new level, growing in his ability to galvanise the team and get them playing at the top of their game.
Scotland coach Gregor Townsend was convinced back then that Hogg was ready for the job, and Lions head coach Warren Gatland was similarly certain at the start of this week that the Exeter player was the right man to lead the team against the South African Lions tomorrow.
But yesterday Hogg insisted that he had not expected to be given the honour at all, and explained that although he had dreamed of representing the Lions, he had never dared to think he would be leading them.
“It came as a bit of a shock at the team announcement on Monday evening when Warren gave me the shout I was going to be captain,” he explained.
“He said he tried to catch me before the meeting but couldn’t quite get me, so I found out the same time as everybody else.
“It’s a huge honour to be here first and foremost, but to have the opportunity to lead the side – never in my wildest dreams did I think this would happen. For me it’s a huge, huge honour.
“As a kid growing up you watched all the different Lions DVDs and videos, and I had a dream of representing them one day. But to be given an opportunity to captain the side is absolutely amazing.
“I’m over the moon. I’m delighted with the opportunity. A huge amount of confidence [has been] put in me to lead this side, but for me it becomes a lot easier when you’ve got a lot of experience within the squad as well. I’m hugely excited for the challenge.”
Although Hogg first played for the Lions back in 2013, his working knowledge of them goes back a lot further thanks to those videos.
He was only an infant in 1997 when the tourists enjoyed a historic series victory over the Springboks, but, asked who sprang to mind when the phrase ‘Lions captain’ was uttered, he named the man who led the team to victory against the then world champions.
“After watching the ‘97 Lions video about a million times, and being able to quote 90 per cent of it, I’d probably say Martin Johnson. “I absolutely loved it.
“I think the thing for me about captain is it doesn’t change anything that you do,” he continued, thinking about the qualities which typified the English lock and which are also increasingly evident in his own game. “You go out there and you be your own man, you be yourself.
“I’ve never been the one that will stand and scream and shout or boss people around: I like to lead by the way I perform. I’m very fortunate that within this team at the weekend there’s a huge amount of experience and some great leaders involved in this team: Owen Farrell, Finn Russell, Maro Itoje, Jamie George.
“For me, I just need to go out there and do my job. That’s the kind of way that I lead. And if there’s something to be said, I’m a very, very passionate rugby player, and I’m hugely excited for this challenge ahead.”
There are three other Scots besides Hogg and Russell in the starting 15 – Chris Harris, Ali Price and Hamish Watson – and Zander Fagerson is on the bench.
The ability to melt down four national teams into one is an important ingredient of the Lions formula for success, but on such a short tour as this one with only five games to go before the Tests, Hogg is convinced that working with team-mates he already knows well could be crucial.
“It’s key. Gats and the rest of the coaches have touched on it. We’re looking for combinations throughout the next three or four games to see who will be in the Test side. We are the ones who have been given the opportunity this week.
“We are the ones that have got to kick off this tour in a good way. And to have Finn and Ali playing inside me, boys that have played together a huge amount of times – hopefully they can drive us round the field. I know they’re hugely excited.”