Hougaard can only get better

Even though wing is not his best position, Francois Hougaard is still an attractive option for the Springboks.

Hougaard scored the Bulls’ only try in their Super 14 final victory over the Stormers, and although much credit must go to Fourie du Preez for the timing of the pass and putting him into the gap, the way Hougaard went around Joe Pietersen was akin to a seasoned winger.

Hougaard only moved to the wing from scrumhalf last year during the Currie Cup, and his try-scoring form and game-breaking ability in recent weeks has been a boon for the Bulls. Du Preez again master-minded the Bulls’ win for their second successive Super 14 title, but Hougaard won his second Man of the Match award in three games. Since the league match against the Saders – where he scored a brace – Hougaard has been one of the Bulls’ most dangerous backs with ball in hand.

‘He’s playing really well at the moment,’ said captain Victor Matfield. ‘Against the Crusaders he was outstanding, and he’s carried on that form.

‘He’s still young and learning. He showed how good he is in that he’s able to perform this well and it’s not even his best position.’

Hougaard’s first choice position is No 9 (he made his Bok debut against Italy at scrumhalf), but with a wing shortage in the country due to injuries to JP Pietersen, Lionel Mapoe and Jongi Nokwe, he must also come into national reckoning there. Odwa Ndungane and Gio Aplon will start against Wales next week, but Hougaard proved at Orlando on Saturday he has more aptitude for international rugby than Aplon, and arguably Ndungane.

Aplon and Hougaard were playing their first final, but the latter’s temperament showed he’s ready for Test rugby at wing and he should come into the selection frame for Tests against France, Italy, and the Tri-Nations. Against the Bulls, Aplon was physically shown up, and on the international stage that will only get worse.

Hougaard showed he has the natural talent to be a success at wing, but his long term future is at scrumhalf. Hougaard will move to No 9 for the Bulls when Du Preez departs for Japan after the World Cup and then he’ll be able to get an extended run in one position.

The luxury for young Bulls players is the climate they are afforded to learn in, and under Du Preez’s guidance, there’s no telling how good Hougaard could become. Speaking to SA Rugby magazine, the Bok No 9 described Hougaard as the best young scrumhalf in the country, and there’s no questioning Du Preez’s estimation.

Hougaard is by no means the finished article, and that showed when he had a forgettable night at Wembley when the Bok dirt-trackers lost to Saracens last year. He’ll need a consistent run in one position to hone his skills, and that will occur from 2012.

Hougaard has all the natural ability to be an attacking threat at scrumhalf and wing. If the game keeps going in the direction it is with the new law interpretations, Hougaard’s running ability from the base with the extra space afforded will ensure he’s a constant threat.

After claiming his first Super 14 title, things can only get better for 22-year-old Hougaard.

By Grant Ball, in Johannesburg