Wednesday 16 August 2017

Stage all set for sunshine stars Hogg and Zebo

Rugby's Best and Zidane clash in full-back contest

Scotland's Stuart Hogg celebrates at the end of the French match. Photo: Russell Cheyne/Reuters
Scotland's Stuart Hogg celebrates at the end of the French match. Photo: Russell Cheyne/Reuters
David Kelly

David Kelly

Perhaps it is the punter's reward for all those dark afternoons sitting in the sideways, sleeting rain watching endless scrum collapses and burly behemoths caroming off each other, instead of seeking the glorious open yonder.

Finally the sun came out last weekend and the sunshine boys came out to play.

First, Simon Zebo's sleight of hand illustrated Irish inspiration on Saturday; 24 hours later, Stuart Hogg's fingerprints dappled brush strokes of genius upon a brighter Scottish canvas.

'L'équipe' summed Hogg up: "Mais quel génie!"

Their individual excellence was a touchstone for their side's exuberant embrace of expansion.

One hopes that neither Ireland nor Scotland abandon their principles as each side acknowledges that their final outing could definitively dictate the mood music of each nation's season,

Quite simply, whoever wins will be relatively satisfied with a difficult post-World Cup challenge; the losers will return to doom-laden navel-gazing.

But will the shining stars be allowed to prosper beneath so much self-imposed pressure?

Zebo will never let an occasion inhibit him; his greatest fear is non-selection but Rob Kearney's persistent hamstring trouble has eradicated fears that he might be relegated to the bench.

Joe Schmidt's old boss, Vern Cotter, would never secrete his most potent weapon from full view and those of us who wallow in the unpredictability and beauty of sport should be thankful to the stern Kiwi's adherence to a game-plan that is, albeit belatedly, producing rewards.

Like Zebo, Hogg can be a liability but his credit account is always worthy of investment.

The manner in which the 23-year-old Glasgow Warrior reflects on his side's win immediately prompted one to recall Zebo's similarly infectious response; both speak of fun and enjoyment.

Free and kindred spirits.

"That game is right up there with one of the most enjoyable I've played for my country as it's great to see all of the practice and hard work we do in training pay off," said Hogg (below), whose father's thirst for genealogy once unearthed a Belfast Best, a great grandmother who was related to George Best's own antecedents.

His Irish counterpart was once christened "Zebo Zidane" after his instinctive flick in Cardiff three years ago; both roomed together with the Lions in 2013 so share more than just an impish enthusiasm to express themselves.

"He's a very good player, he is very exciting," Zebo tells us.

Quality

"I've obviously spent a bit of time with him on the Lions tour so I know him quite well personally too better than most. He's a quality player and a good friend and it will be nice to line up against him. I haven't done it in a while so it should be good."

Before last season's Pro12 final, Hogg told the Irish Independent that "it is much easier to play when you are in love with the game"; that sentiment coursed through his bones, as much as it did Zebo's, on Sunday.

"You could see by our faces just how delighted we were. Now we need to get geared up to beat Ireland.

"The individuals and characters we have in the squad are second to none. The way we gel is brilliant so it's great to finally get that win.

"I'm not sure if it's our best display under Vern as we have played better. We missed a few chances in defence which wasn't good enough. There is definitely more to come as you never get the complete performance.

"We've had poor performances in the past but it makes amends. You don't get many opportunities in international rugby and the times we made them we finished them off well."

Although he missed a tackle as France briefly re-discovered their flair in Edinburgh to score a wondrous opening try, his tackle on Yacouba Camara set up the opening score before his rubber-hipped footwork allowed him to step inside Gael Fickou before stretching one arm out for an irrepressible score of his own.

After the break Hogg kicked a monster of a penalty from inside his own half but it was his response to Greig Laidlaw's floated pass that seized the breath; despite the inevitability of being smashed on the gain-line, he instinctively flipped it onwards, despite facing his own posts, allowing Tim Visser to complete the score.

"It was a bit of luck," Hogg admits.

"That's what you need. I'm just delighted to get that win and obviously we worked very hard throughout the week to get it."

Hogg once strode through the Sydney streets in merely red underwear during that 2013 Lions tour, a sure indication of someone who is not afraid of exposure.

Irish Independent

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