There can now no longer be questions around Francois Hougaard's best position. It is at wing, writes RYAN VREDE.
I hope the debate is settled, although there will probably be a section of the South African rugby fraternity that maintain Hougaard is best deployed as a scrumhalf. Indeed Hougaard himself may still feel this way. There would be no basis for that belief, should he hold it.
This, of course, is not a new assertion I'm making. Throughout last season I put forward this view as Hougaard stumbled from one mediocre performance in the No 9 shirt to another. I argued that we had seen enough of him in both positions to make an educated call on this issue. On the evidence presented, that position is undoubtedly wing.
He has scored five tries to date, placing him second on the try-scorers list. This is, and will always be, the primary measure of a winger. However, Hougaard's value transcends try scoring. His counter-attacking play is very good and has often been the catalyst for successful attacking maneuvers. His positional sense is sound, he is a strong and intelligent defender, his kicking game – inadequate at Super Rugby and Test levels – is strong for a winger, he is able to operate in tight spaces when required to, and his aerial ability is solid.
The Vodacom Bulls have benefited from all these qualities. Indeed there appears to have been a decision to make this his primary position. If so, it is an excellent, albeit long overdue, one.
The switch will also radically improve Hougaard's chance of making the Springboks' run-on side. I have long been perplexed by the selection loyalty to JP Pietersen given his try-scoring record for the Springboks – 18 in 59 Tests. What he offers in experience and other areas of the game fails to compensate for his now-chronic impotence, and replacing him with Hougaard would be a step forward in the Springboks' quest to be the best side in the world.
A back three of Willie le Roux, Bryan Habana and Hougaard is an exciting prospect and would give the Springboks an attacking edge they've failed to exhibit with any degree of consistency. The counter-argument is that that combination would be vulnerable to an aerial assault. They may well be, but it wouldn't hurt to explore the option. If the opposition kick poorly, the trio's broken-field potential is immense. Pietersen is too valuable to discard completely and having him in a match 23 offers some insurance against things going south. But fielding the trio discussed above is the type of avenue coach Heyneke Meyer has to venture down as he prepares for the World Cup.
After an indifferent couple of years, Hougaard seems to have committed to drastic improvement. His social media feeds offer us some insight into this commitment, with the 27-year-old regularly posting images of himself working towards physical and technical progression, whether it be in the gym or extra old-field sessions. The fruits of his labour are plain to see.
Hougaard's career is back on the rails thanks to a switch of mindset and position. That is something that should warm the hearts of all Bulls and Springboks supporters.
Photo: Barry Aldworth/BackpagePix