Francois Hougaard needs to make concrete decisions immediately or risk watching a career of incredible promise die a slow death, writes RYAN VREDE.
In August 2010 I interviewed Francois Hougaard in his Silver Woods Country Estate home. I was impressed by his confidence and single-mindedness. He spoke with the enthusiasm that reflected his mental state at the time, a state forged by spectacular performances for the Bulls in the infancy of his professional career.
He was living large, as popular and prolific off the field as he was on it. He was the darling of the Bulls’ senior players, which, you should know, is not a distinction many enjoyed at the time. Bryan Habana had departed the Bulls for the Stormers at the end of 2009, but Habana’s ghost wouldn’t haunt. They had Hougaard, the scrumhalf who wasn’t good enough to start ahead of Fourie du Preez, but so good he was accommodated at wing. Everything was sweet.
How different things are now. After a poor start to the Bulls’ Super Rugby campaign, where his performance against the Sharks was severely criticised by the primary opinion shaper in South African rugby, Nick Mallett – ‘His kicking game was poor and he was slow to the breakdown and struggling to get back into the role of No 9’ – Hougaard’s value at scrumhalf is being questioned. Some are more harsh than that. They wonder if he is worth the investment at all. These seem ludicrous concerns, but they aren’t without merit.
Even soon after the interview in 2010 there were warning signs in the form of his performance in the defeat to the All Blacks at Soccer City in 2010. At the time the media were sympathetic to a rookie nine up against a formidable opponent. He’d later play mainly as a wing under Peter de Villiers, but when his 2012 and 2013 showings at scrumhalf for the Bulls and Springboks failed to meet expectations, the charity that had been extended to Hougaard quickly diminished.
He is being widely spoken of as a bad player. This couldn’t be further from the truth. He is an exceptional player in the midst of a struggle, one he has contributed to, certainly, but is not solely responsible for.
At the heart of the problem lies the Bulls’ inability to make him the best version of himself. Instead they have hoped that his extensive mentorship under Du Preez would result in the master scrumhalf birthing another him. This was never Du Preez’s intention.
‘From the outset I could see that Francois’ strengths were very different to mine. He was more instinctive. In fact, it was an aspect of his game that I coveted because I found at times I was too systematic,’ Du Preez says. ‘We worked a lot on his kicking game, but I always told him he must back his strengths, which are with ball in hand, especially around the fringes. Give him the smallest gap and he’s gone.
‘Watching him play for the Bulls, you can see they’re trying to push a square peg into a round hole. Without being arrogant, in the past the Bulls’ systems worked in large part because I had a strong kicking game. This isn’t Francois’ main strength, so you can’t expect him to replicate what I did. He has so many other strengths.’
Hougaard has endured all the criticism, while the Bulls’ coaching staff have felt very little of the sting. Indeed, Hougaard’s predicament speaks mainly of Frans Ludeke’s limitations as a coach. The best coaches shape their game plan around the personnel at their disposal, instead of trying to make them adapt to a pre-determined approach.
Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer stressed this point many times in our professional discourse over the years.
‘People called my Bulls side boring and pragmatic, but few questioned their efficiency,’ he said in one such conversation in the courtyard of the Palazzo Hotel in Johannesburg in 2012. ‘Those teams played the way they did because of who I had available to me. If I’d been dealt a different hand player-wise, you would have seen a very different approach. I can only work with what I have.
‘The skill of any coach is measured by his ability to get the best out of his player resources.’
This is a failing of all but a few South African coaches. Certainly the Stormers under Allister Coetzee have become a pop gun in a ballistic missile casing.
Hougaard is culpable in the sense that he holds steadfast to the view that he is a scrumhalf, despite all the best moments of his career coming as a wing. He argues that he is still finding his feet after extensive ankle surgery that confined him to bed for nine weeks and only allowed him to hone his kicking game shortly before the start of the tournament. This assertion is questionable at best. He has natural limitations to how good he can become in this facet of play, and it appears he has reached that ceiling and is still not quite good enough.
It has become increasingly apparent to me and many in the South African rugby fraternity that he cannot have as big an impact as a scrumhalf that he does with the time and space offered to him as a wing.
My understanding is that Meyer is clear in his mind that, barring a dramatic improvement in his scrumhalf play, Hougaard will be deployed as a wing. The national coach rates him highly in that position as his X factor, pace, acceleration, positional sense, work rate, kicking game and aerial ability all combine to make him a potential match-winner. His estimation of the player can be seen in him awarding a national contract to Hougaard.
Yet, whether as a wing or scrumhalf, Hougaard is too talented to be written off.
He is only 25. Twenty five. He is, however, at a critical stage of his career. The world’s elite players are settled and delivering on their promise consistently. They’re growing into giants of the game, not being dwarfed by the issues Hougaard is still grappling with.
Hougaard is the master of his own destiny. He needs to be honest with himself about where his career is at, decisive about how he wants it to unfold and seek counsel from men with his best interests at heart in reaching that decision. He cannot rely on coaches to make these decisions for him. For them, players are a disposable commodity, most easily replaceable.
At present we are seeing but a fraction of his immense talent realised. We have to find a way to heal Hougaard.
THREE MOMENTS OF HOUGAARD MAGIC
SPRINGBOKS vs WALES, WELLINGTON (2011 WORLD CUP)
With the Springboks 16-10 down and struggling to break Wales’ stubborn resistance, Hougaard combines brilliantly with Fourie du Preez. Having committed two defenders, Du Preez pops the ball up to Hougaard, who is running a brilliant line at high speed. He is untouched en route to the tryline. It proves to be the decisive score in the match.
BULLS vs CRUSADERS, PRETORIA (2010 SUPER 14)
With the Bulls trailing the mighty Crusaders 19-9 in a must-win match, Hougaard, playing as a wing, announces himself as a special talent. The ball is shifted wide to him just outside his 22m and he proceeds to step Dan Carter, then leave him and Sean Maitland for dead in his surge to score. He caps a fine performance by scoring the match-winning try a minute after the final hooter has blown, scooping up a ball that is deflected three times and sprinting in on goal.
BULLS vs STORMERS, SOWETO (2010 SUPER 14 FINAL)
Hougaard again combines with Du Preez in a move that leaves the Stormers’ defenders grasping at shadows. From 40m out, Hougaard drifts off his wing into midfield, picks off a Du Preez pass and cuts through the line, standing up fullback Joe Pietersen as he makes his way to a score the Stormers would never recover from.
– This article first appeared in the April 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine