Even at this early stage of the season, Francois Hougaard has given Vodacom Bulls and Bok fans little to be optimistic about, writes RYAN VREDE.
At Kings Park, the Bulls needed their big players, Hougaard among them, to deliver a performance worthy of their standing in the game. What they got was a limp offering that belied their talent. Ominously, I often wrote the same line about Hougaard in matches of this ilk in 2013.
He is an immense talent, one I've celebrated in this column and in SA Rugby magazine. However, he is betraying his talent and needs an intervention.
I've consistently called for that to take the form of a positional shift to wing, where he has played his best rugby. His performance on Saturday didn't change my view on this. In the aftermath of the 31-16 demolition job the Sharks put on them, Nick Mallett delivered a scathing assessment of Hougaard's performance.
'The kicking game of Hougaard was poor and he was slow to the breakdown and struggling to get back into the role of No 9,' he said.
In terms of astute observations from the gifted analyst, it wasn't his most groundbreaking. But Mallett's tone conveyed the frustration that would resonate with many in the South African rugby fraternity.
The simple truth is that he isn't good enough a scrumhalf, technically, to drive the Bulls
In hindsight, it's not hard to see why Hougaard was consistently overlooked as a scrumhalf for junior provincial representation in his school days. He caught the eye playing in a training match against the SA Schools side, operating at centre, no less. Yet there was something about him that elicited an investment from coaches, none more so than Heyneke Meyer, who brought him to the Bulls with a view to him succeeding Fourie du Preez. So good was his training form that they accommodated him on the wing, where he outshone far more established South African wingers, including Bryan Habana, in 2009.
But for the past two years Hougaard has been a shadow of that player. Certainly injuries and personal struggles (he was a close friend of Reeva Steenkamp, who was shot by Oscar Pistorius a year ago) have contributed to this, as has the waning potency of the Bulls' pack. However, that alone cannot account for the severity of his struggles.
The simple truth is that he isn't good enough a scrumhalf, technically, to drive the Bulls, who, on the evidence of their tactical approach against the Sharks, will continue to rely heavily on the kicking game of their No 9.
In a Springbok context, he certainly isn't among the top three scrumhalves. In any case, Meyer considers him firstly a wing, then a scrumhalf, having seen enough to know that he won't make the cut as a Test No 9 against the elite teams. That said, if Meyer were able to work with Hougaard on a daily basis, I suspect we'd see a very different player.
Tellingly for Bulls and their fans, though, the degree to which Hougaard can improve as a scrumhalf is limited. What he can offer them as a winger isn't. Yet it is unlikely that the Bulls will take the decision to change his position. Indeed Hougaard has stressed consistently that he wants to establish himself as a scrumhalf. So we are likely to have to watch one of the most naturally gifted and instinctive players continue to struggle.
I hope for his sake and for the health of the South African game that my opinion will be embarrassed in the months ahead, that Hougaard somehow settles at scrumhalf and shows why Meyer thought him good enough to succeed Du Preez. But I doubt that view will be shown up as flawed.
It pains me to criticise Hougaard's performances. He is my type of player in the sense that I'm taken by the X factor, an unrelenting work ethic and a healthy measure of swagger. But my admiration for him cannot mask the obvious – he is currently not the player the Bulls need him to be. As a scrumhalf, it is unlikely that he ever will be.
Photo: Gerhard du Randt/BackpagePix