Francois Hougaard's aptitude will come under the microscope once again in the Springboks' last two Tests of the Rugby Championship, writes RYAN VREDE.
Ruan Pienaar has been ruled out for the remainder of the Rugby Championship with a serious knee injury, clearing the path for Hougaard to ascend to a position many thought he would have made his own by this stage of his career.
Instead Hougaard has struggled to make the transition from his early days spent dazzling on the wing for the Bulls to a truly world-class scrumhalf. Hougaard wouldn't have made the match 23 had Fourie been fit to play in the Rugby Championship, yet now with both him and Pienaar sidelined, Hougaard will be asked to conduct affairs against Australia and New Zealand in the remaining Tests.
The Springboks are under considerable pressure to arrest a two-Test losing streak, which compounds the pressure on Hougaard. He was solid without being notably influential against the All Blacks in Wellington at the weekend, which really is something that can be said of his international career in its fullness to date.
This must change if the Springboks hope to salvage their campaign through victories in their remaining home Tests. Scrumhalf is a critical position in the context of how they want to play, particularly in terms of the tactical-kicking demands. This is not a strength of Hougaard's and it appears he has reached his ceiling for improvement.
However, given a strong platform from his forwards, Hougaard's eye for and ability to exploit a hole in the defensive line gives the Springboks an attacking weapon they don't have to the same degree with Pienaar. He is also an excellent resource if the game is open, as it has the potential to become against the Wallabies.
The Springboks won't tailor their approach around Hougaard's strength, though, and in the next fortnight he will be asked to do a significant number of hours honing his kicking game, and, to a lesser extent, his decision-making and execution under pressure when it comes to his distribution.
There is an outside chance that coach Heyneke Meyer will look beyond Hougaard as his starting scrumhalf, although, having selected him in the match 23 for all the tournament's Tests thus far, it's hard to see this happening. It bears discussing nonetheless, and there are strong and ever-growing calls for the Sharks' Cobus Reinach to be granted an opportunity.
Reinach was consistently good in the Sharks' Super Rugby campaign, but failed to impose himself in their matches against the tournament's elite teams like he would against lesser ones. This raised some concerns because it gives you insight into the mental constitution of the player. In Reinach's case, I'm not convinced he has the mettle to be considered the answer for the Springboks in the position.
But all eyes should be trained on Hougaard when the Springboks resume in a fortnight. Meyer has some time to work with Hougaard one-on-one without the pressure of a match on a Saturday and this will undoubtedly benefit him. Whether that translates into Hougaard being able to deliver the level of performance that contributes to a Springbok victory against the Wallabies at Newlands remains to be seen.
Now in his sixth year as a professional (in which period he has mostly been a run-on starter), Hougaard's shortcomings can no longer be written off as those of a rookie, and he can't be accommodated in Springbok squads on the basis of what the selectors believe his potential to be. My position is that he would be far better deployed as a winger, but it appears that option is off the table.
In light of this, it's time for Hougaard, as a scrumhalf, to shape up or ship out.
Photo: Marty Melville/AFP Photo