Francois Hougaard talks to RYAN VREDE about being a man-child, building a business empire, getting tattoos removed and buying a Lamborghini.
You were a rookie at the Bulls with the world at your feet when I first interviewed you. I walked away from that interview feeling like you thought you were untouchable. When you look at that man, in what significant ways has he changed?
I’ve grown up a lot. When I was 19, 20, 21 years old, playing for the best franchise in the country and the Springboks, I was getting great media coverage and I felt bulletproof. I wasn’t thinking about how it could all end quickly. I wasn’t thinking about life after rugby. For me it was all about the present. Since then I’ve matured a lot. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy my life, but there’s more of a balance now and I’ve realised I have to take care of my life after rugby. I’m 30 years old. I’m not going to play for another 10 years and I want to retire still playing at a high level. Retirement isn’t something I’m thinking about just yet, but when that time comes I want to be able to do it on my terms, leaving people with a positive memory of me. Our players’ association showed us some alarming stats on professional players retiring with inadequate skills to cope with the massive jump from being a pro to the real world. Either that, or they don’t know how to function in the ‘real world’ because rugby was their whole identity. That’s why I’m so focused on building my businesses. I want to make that transition as easy as possible.
It’s interesting that you mention how players struggle, especially in retirement,because their sense of self-worth is rooted in the game. Far too many players break down because they are defined by the result of a game.
Yeah, I’ve been around players like that and some of them fell apart as soon as they started getting criticised. I suffer from that to an extent too. But I don’t judge anyone because I’ve been judged all my life. Those guys make decisions that are best for them. I have a lot of interests outside rugby – my business ventures, fashion, travel and so on. Rugby has given me every opportunity I have in life, which I’m truly grateful for. But I’m more than just a rugby player.
In that first interview, we touched on your private life as far as relationships were concerned. The media were all over it. Reflecting on that time, is there anything you’d change or do you regard it as an invaluable learning experience?
Look, I brought a lot of that on myself. I made some mistakes. In hindsight they helped me mature and I’ve learned from them. It is what it is. I’m only human. I was a kid with a childish mentality.
How easy or hard is it for a man in your position to go dating?
It was tricky. There were trust issues because rugby players generally don’t have the best reputations. Social media has complicated that further. It is tough but you have to try to make it work.
The challenges faced by average guys trying to date are already complex, but they don’t compare to what pro athletes go through.
True. You’re in the spotlight all the time and all you want is some breathing room to see if there’s chemistry.
Is the reputation rugby players have fair?
There are two sides. On one hand, people make up stories about you, despite not knowing you. It’s sad but it does contribute to building a reputation. On the other hand, some players do bring it on themselves. If you don’t want to be in a relationship you should just own it and be honest.
Some felt that Pretoria wasn’t a good fit for you from a lifestyle perspective and you were more suited to either Cape Town or a European-based club in or close to a world-class city. Did you ever feel trapped in that Pretoria bubble?
I don’t agree. It wasn’t a bubble; I chose to be in Pretoria. I’ll never have a bad word to say about living there. I needed it at that stage of my career. I don’t know how far I would have gone if I’d been in Cape Town with all the things that could steal my attention. Looking back, I’m grateful the bulk of my career was spent in Pretoria, with senior players who helped me grow up. There came a time where I needed to move on and now I’m lucky to only be two and a half hours away from London. Other cool cities in Europe are a short flight away. Dubai and the States are easy to get to. Also, as an entrepreneur it has opened up massive opportunities for me.
You’re building a reputation as an accomplished entrepreneur. Tell us more about your business interests.
I want to be a billionaire. Even saying that makes me nervous because it can be perceived as arrogant. As a boy from the platteland, in others’ eyes I’m supposed to behave in a certain way. But it isn’t arrogant. I’m extremely ambitious and that’s the goal I’ve set for myself. I’ve got businesses and business interests ranging from clothing brands to private equity ventures. The most important part of this billionaire vision isn’t for myself. I want to make a massive and practical difference to peoples’ lives. I want to uplift the less fortunate, particularly in rugby’s academy spaces back home.
When making major life decisions, are you instinctive or analytical?
That’s tough; there are times when I apply both. When I was younger I never put too much thought into big decisions. Now I’d say I’ve been influenced to consider things a bit more. My business partner in the US is like a big brother to me and has taught me to step back and take a breath before making big decisions. My partner, who’s a doctor, lives in South Africa and she has also influenced me in the same way. I often ask people I trust to cast fresh eyes on important decisions in my life.
Now, what about the Lamborghini? How do you get to the point where you go: ‘OK, I’m buying a Lambo!’
Cars are my biggest passion. When I was in Pretoria I had an Audi R8. It’s an adrenaline rush. I’ve got a very good contact here who helped me with a deal that actually made me a decent return when I sold it. Having a supercar in winter in the UK is not practical. It was always dirty because they put salt on the road for the ice. You drive from the carwash to your house and the car is dirty. It’s a mess. I’ve got my eye on a luxury car that may be added to the collection soon. It’s a reward to myself for hard work. I get a lot of heat for it but I’m not going to stop doing things I love.
How and why did you start getting tattoos, and what guides your decisions on them?
I’ve got some tattoos purely for the artistic aspect, others are meaningful to me. My latest one, which has two wings with my three god-daughters’ names between them, is extremely meaningful. Probably the most special.
Do you regret having any of them?
No. But there are some that were a bit of a rush job because I needed to find a gap in my playing schedule where the tattoos could heal – like 10 to 15 days – which is hard to find. I’ll get those removed and redone.
There’s a perception that Saffa rugby players who take an interest in fashion and the like are soft and even feminine, to put it mildly. I believe the perception of masculinity in rugby is ridiculous and needs to change. My sense is that you’ve got an opinion on this.
No question! If you look at a guy like [New York Giants wide receiver] Odell Beckham Jnr, he takes a lot of heat for things he does that are considered outside the norm. He dances and has fun before the game, he dresses in a way that people criticise him for and he’s on social media often sharing aspects of his life. I don’t understand why he is criticised for these things. I’d understand if he wasn’t performing at a high level. But he is excellent week in and week out. This old-school rugby mentality isn’t for me, it may be for others. I love fashion; I love travelling to new cities and eating at their best restaurants. I love spending time with good people at a great bar. My body is filled with tattoos. I reward myself for hard work. I’ve loved supercars since I was a kid and put in the work so I could own one. I’ve got a collection of investment watches. Those things don’t make me soft.
– This Q&A first appeared in the March 2019 issue of SA Rugby magazine.