Francois Hougaard has dismissed questions about his aptitude as a Test scrumhalf but Europe represents a key examination of his tactical variation, writes RYAN VREDE.
I was on the brink of writing Hougaard off as a Test-calibre scrumhalf. I believed deeply (and am still inclined to believe) that he would be more effectively deployed as a wing, where his speed and physicality would be better utilised. It is, after all, where his best performances for the Springboks have come.
However, his showings in the Rugby Championship – he dazzled against Australia and turned in an excellent performance against the world champion All Blacks – demanded that I reconsider my position. He looked more like the player I envisaged him being when I first watched him at the Bulls and indeed the one Fourie du Preez spoke about glowingly. 'He can develop into one of the best scrumhalves in the world,' the world's pre-eminent No 9 told me at the time (2009).
A big part of Hougaard's turnaround can be attributed to the Springboks' tactical shift to a more expansive approach. This shift, in my understanding, was largely designed to maximise rookie flyhalf Handré Pollard's ball-carrying and distribution skill. Hougaard, who got his break thanks to injuries to Fourie du Preez and Ruan Pienaar, benefited inadvertently and took advantage of the new playing style.
For around a year I have pleaded through this platform for Hougaard to have less tactical-kicking responsibility and for him to have a broader attacking directive. I had a strong suspicion that he would be a far more formidable player if allowed to express his natural instinct, and that suspicion (I certainly wasn't alone in this view) was proved to be right when I watched him at Newlands and Ellis Park in the Rugby Championship.
However, if he hopes to have a long Springbok career (he has already played 32 Tests) he has to exhibit a degree of tactical versatility, especially in testing northern hemisphere conditions. With Pienaar still battling to recover from his knee injury, Hougaard is likely to start against Ireland in Dublin on Saturday. Rain and wind is predicted during the Test and these conditions would demand that the Springboks temper their newly adopted expansive approach. In practice this would mean their halfback pairing (and fullback to a lesser extent) would be required to gain the Springboks a territorial advantage through accurate tactical kicking. Hougaard's ability to do so effectively against a very good Ireland side will be under the spotlight.
No absolute conclusions can be drawn on Hougaard until we establish his tactical versatility. This is not to say that we should expect him to have the same level of competence in this regard as Du Preez, only that he would have to dial back from 9 or 10 on his attacking play to show that he can operate at a 6 or 7 if required to. And how Hougaard fares tactically on this tour will give us greater insight into his suitability for the World Cup squad.
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