Johan Goosen and Francois Hougaard’s impending moves to the Vodacom Bulls will provide an opportunity for the talented duo to reimpose themselves on South African rugby, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Both Goosen and Hougaard have negotiated interesting roads on their rugby journeys. In fact, that is quite an understatement – particularly in the case of Goosen.
SARugbymag.co.za has reliably learned that the two versatile backline players have agreed to terms to join the Bulls, and just final paperwork is required before confirming the signings.
It’s a return to South African rugby that represents undeniably decisive career moves for a pair of players who were regarded as two of the most prodigiously talented players during their breakthrough years on the local and international circuit.
Goosen, a product of the Grey College conveyer belt of Test-quality players, would go on to make his Springbok debut at the age of 20 when he came off the bench to face Australia in 2012.
A long and illustrious international career was expected to lie ahead for a young star who oozed class and composure. The game seemed to come so naturally to the mercurial maverick who was capable of performing at either flyhalf or fullback.
Yet, in the years to come, Goosen’s once bright-light career prospects would be dimmed by ill-fated decisions, primarily related to both joining French giants Racing 92 and then controversially quitting his contract under the guise of retiring to work on a farm in Bloemfontein.
Goosen was never happy in Paris, and in 2018 he opened up about his struggles.
‘I am South African, I need space and, in the suburbs of Paris, the buildings are so close to each other that I felt like I was choking. I had the uncomfortable feeling of living in a box. The worst part is that my son was also very unhappy.’
Backing out of his contract and effectively heading into hiding under the cloak of ‘retirement’ led to lawsuits, recrimination and regrets.
‘It was madness. I made a mistake,’ he conceded after also finding it difficult to adjust to a life away from his rugby profession and passion.
Eventually, Goosen came out of retirement to join Montpellier. It was a ‘second chance’ for someone who says he has matured as both a player and person after years of ups and downs on and off the field.
Now, bear in mind that Goosen is still just 28 years old. He undoubtedly has at least another five years of high-level rugby in him, especially after an enforced two-year absence from the game.
To say he will be intent on making up for lost time is another understatement, while to suggest there is still time for him to reignite his Test ambitions is not beyond the realms of possibility.
At the Bulls, Goosen is likely to be the first-choice flyhalf, but could just as easily lay claim to the No 15 jersey when one considers Gio Aplon will turn 39 later this year.
This is a shot at redemption for Goosen. It’s a shot at reinventing himself in a new environment, and with a team that has emerged as a strengthening force in South African rugby.
Goosen will also add value to the Bulls backline, particularly with his ability to cover two positions where the Pretoria-based franchise has been a bit thin on depth.
Similarly, Hougaard is set to return around the time that scrumhalf Ivan van Zyl will be heading in the other direction to join English club Saracens.
Hougaard is a player with 46 Test caps to his name, but in 2018, the then 30-year-old also shocked the rugby fraternity when he announced his retirement from international rugby. His focus shifted solely to making the most of his time at the Worcester Warriors, where he has been held in the highest regard.
When it comes to Hougaard, there is no doubt that his international career was mishandled, with the speedster shunted between scrumhalf (16 starts) and wing (11 starts).
You could also hardly blame him for becoming gatvol when former Bok coach Allister Coetzee suggested in 2017 that he had battled to meet the technical requirements for a Test-quality scrumhalf.
I was at the media conference when Coetzee took the very rare route for an international coach by openly bashing a player who was still in his squad. Hougaard would later admit that public rebuking was the lowest point in his career.
Yet, he also used the rejection to work even harder for Worcester, and at 32 years old, he now returns to the Bulls – where he spent the formative years of his career – with experience and maturity on his side.
His recruitment is another smart piece of business from the Bulls, who have lured him back to Pretoria in the knowledge that one of the most supremely conditioned players in the game is a more well-rounded player than the one who left Loftus in 2015.
Along with the incoming arrival of Marcell Coetzee, the Bulls have added some real quality and northern-hemisphere experience to an already good-looking squad.