Francois Hougaard produces his best rugby when relegation-threatened Worcester need it most, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
When Francois Hougaard arrived at the Worcester Warriors on 15 February 2016, they were on a 13-match winless streak and in serious danger of being relegated from the English Premiership.
Five days later, the club’s new signing started at scrumhalf as the Warriors claimed a 31-23 home win against the Sale Sharks, who had been on a five-match winning run in the Premiership. The Warriors scored three tries, one of them by Hougaard, who darted away from the back of a lineout driving maul in the 28th minute.
‘He only arrived on Monday, but Francois was outstanding,’ said then-Worcester director of rugby Dean Ryan after the match. ‘He’s a class player. His confidence spread through the team.’
That certainly seemed to be the case as Hougaard’s first six matches at the club resulted in five wins. The Warriors would go on to finish 10th in the Premiership, 15 log points ahead of the relegated London Irish.
Just over a year later, on 5 March, the Warriors, with Gary Gold as their director of rugby, again faced a crucial clash – against Bristol, the only team below them on the log. And again the pressure brought the best out of Hougaard, who scored a superb individual try and created another for wing Bryce Heem.
Hougaard’s came in the 19th minute, from an overthrown Bristol lineout on their 10m line. The scrumhalf stepped inside off his left foot, past Bristol No 8 Jordan Crane, and fended off wing Tom Varndell close to the line before diving over.
‘You need guts, determination, and a little bit of quality to win survival battles like this,’ said the commentator, ‘and Francois Hougaard had plenty of the latter just then.’
Just before half-time, Hougaard burst away from another lineout, stepping past Varndell and putting Heem away for the first of his two tries. The Warriors went on to record a 41-24 bonus-point win that took them six points clear of Bristol on the log.
‘You don’t get a greater challenge than a relegation battle,’ Hougaard tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘You really get to test yourself, and I feed off that pressure.’
Gold agrees: ‘Hougie was outstanding in that match. When he received the ball at the back of the lineout and saw the gap, he turned on the burners and left Varndell for dead. The team was under pressure going into the game, but Hougie had such a calming influence on the other players. He also calmed me. I know that if he’s running the show at nine, we’ll be OK.’
Hougaard is loving life with Worcester, but the 29-year-old wouldn’t be at the club had he not been dropped by Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer in 2015. When it became clear he would not be going to the World Cup, the Canon Eagles, who he had recently signed for, expected him to report for duty in Japan. However, Hougaard was still contracted to the Bulls, who wanted him to play in the Currie Cup. When he did, Canon terminated his contract.
He then decided to pursue his Olympic dream by signing a deal with the Blitzboks, and with his time at the Bulls coming to an end, he looked abroad. When Hougaard was offered a two-month contract by Worcester, which fitted in with his sevens commitments, it was an easy decision for him to make.
‘I’m good friends with [former Bulls and Bok centre] Wynand Olivier, who has been at Worcester since 2015, while [former Bulls loose forwards] Gerrit-Jan van Velze and Dewald Potgieter are here too,’ he says. ‘I also like the fact that there isn’t a language barrier for me in England, which would be the case in France or Japan.’
So impressive was Hougaard during his initial two-month stint that Worcester offered him a three-year deal. The club was happy to let him fulfil his sevens commitments with the Blitzboks, which saw him earn an Olympic bronze medal, and he remained available for Bok selection.
Hougaard signed for Worcester as a scrumhalf, and played there every week, yet was selected at wing for the Boks in four Rugby Championship matches last year.
It later emerged he did so while injured. Before the tournament, Hougaard hurt his shoulder in a training session, but the Bok medical team believed it was a spasm and didn’t send him for a scan. When Hougaard returned to Worcester, and the shoulder was still bothering him, the club sent him for scans, which revealed rotator cuff and bicep tendon tears. Hougaard was ruled out of action for three months, and Worcester sought financial compensation from SA Rugby (any agreement made is kept between club and country).
With 39 Test caps, Hougaard is eligible to play for the Boks again this year under SA Rugby’s new policy for overseas-based players.
‘I’m still hungry to play for the Boks,’ he says. ‘Obviously, I need to earn selection for the squad first, but I’d love to reach 50 Test caps and, while it’s still a way off, go to the 2019 World Cup. But all I can do is play as well as I can for Worcester, and then it’s up to the Bok selectors.’
Gold expects Hougaard to be part of the Bok squad again this year, but hopes Allister Coetzee picks him at scrumhalf.
‘You will only get reward from Hougie if you play him at nine,’ Gold says. ‘That is where he wants to play, and where he is playing regularly. You can get away with moving a centre to wing, but scrumhalf is such a specialised position.
‘When Hougie has been asked to play wing, he’s had to work on things like catching the high ball and his back-field defence, rather than his box kicking, which is an important part of a scrumhalf’s game.
‘I think the Boks will need experience and calm heads this season,’ Gold adds. ‘Hougie can provide that for them at nine. He certainly won’t be intimidated by the prospect of facing France in June.’
GARY GOLD ON HOUGAARD
‘Hougie joined Worcester because he wanted to enjoy his rugby again and make a difference. It’s not about him being the “main main”; he just wants to positively influence a group of players. They respect him, because he’s played at the highest level, and he has such a calming effect on them.
‘When Hougie returned to the club after playing for the Blitzboks at the Olympics, the players were in a world of pain [because of poor results]. When he chatted to them, he said, “OK boys, let’s chill out. What are we going to do to turn things around?” Hougie is quite philosophical, a deep thinker, and we’ve had some great conversations. And while he isn’t our captain, he’s become one of the leaders of the group.
‘Hougie has focused on scrumhalf, his preferred position, at Worcester. He’s worked hard on his passing and his kicking, which has really improved. I’ve never believed in playing guys out of position, and I don’t see why the Boks would want him on the wing when he wants to be at scrumhalf and there are so many good wings in South Africa. The two positions require different preparation, so it’s unfair to select him at wing for the Boks when all of his focus at Worcester is on scrumhalf.’
This article first appeared in the April 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine