Hougie back in hot seat

Francois Hougaard looks set to replace Ross Cronjé and start his first Test at scrumhalf in nearly three years, writes JON CARDINELLI in Johannesburg.

On Tuesday, Cronjé was ruled out of the third and final Test against France due to concussion. The Springbok medical team confirmed that Cronjé had shown delayed symptoms of concussion and that he would not be able to get through the recovery protocols ahead of the clash at Ellis Park on Saturday.

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The upshot is that Allister Coetzee will be forced to make yet another change to his starting side this week. Jean-Luc du Preez is already set to replace Oupa Mohoje (also concussion) at blindside flank. With Cronjé sitting out, Hougaard is now the favourite to fill the void at No 9. Du Preez and Hougaard have both played off the bench in the past two Tests against France.

Bok captain Warren Whiteley joined Cronjé on the sideline at the training session held at St Peters College in Johannesburg on Tuesday. Whiteley missed two training sessions in the lead-up to the second Test, but was able to take part in the game itself. At this point, there appears to be no real concern over the skipper's fitness and he should start the third Test.

That said, it would be interesting to see what Coetzee would do if Whiteley was suddenly ruled out. One of the other leaders in the team, like Siya Kolisi or Eben Etzebeth, would have to take on the captaincy. Coetzee would need to make additional changes to his back row, and possibly move Du Preez or Kolisi to No 8.

Coetzee looks set to field Kolisi, Du Preez and Whiteley as his starting back-row combination at Ellis Park. Jaco Kriel trained with what appeared to be the run-on side on Tuesday, and should at the very least be included in the matchday 23.

Other changes to the starting lineup should see Jesse Kriel returning at No 13 – Lionel Mapoe has been released to the SA A side ahead of their game against the French Barbarians on Friday – and Ruan Dreyer getting his first cap at tighthead prop.

Hougaard's return to the starting lineup, and especially in a key decision-making role, is significant. The last time Hougaard started at No 9 in a Test was when the Boks lost to Ireland in Dublin in 2014.

Hougaard's best position has long been a point of debate. While he began his professional career as a specialist scrumhalf, he was on the wing when the Bulls won the Super Rugby title in 2010.

Hougaard has played 41 Tests (23 at scrumhalf and 18 in the back three) for the Boks since November 2009. He has started on 24 occasions (13 at scrumhalf and 11 at wing).

The player's positional focus has changed on almost a yearly basis. He was initially backed at scrumhalf in 2009 and for much of the 2010 season, but played all but one of his games on the wing at the 2011 World Cup.

Hougaard started the first five Tests of 2012 at scrumhalf and then the next seven at wing. He focused on the No 9 position in 2014, but featured at wing in all four of his Tests in 2016.

Since moving to Worcester in England, however, Hougaard has made it clear that his preferred position is No 9. Warriors director of rugby and former Bok assistant coach Gary Gold told SA Rugby magazine recently that this is where the player's focus should be going forward.

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'He’s worked hard on his passing and his kicking, which has really improved,' said Gold. '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.’

Hougaard has made an impact coming off the bench in the past two Tests against France. It will be interesting to see from the outset how he goes at Ellis Park on Saturday. More will be expected of him tactically, and he should be looking to make a statement.

Photo: Anne Laing/HM Images

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Jon Cardinelli