No half measures

Francois Hougaard lives his life at breakneck speed, writes RYAN VREDE in SA Rugby magazine.

It’s a white, sex-on-wheels, 420hp, R850 000, all-the-extras, 2009 BMW M3. If it were a woman it would be Angelina Jolie – poised and sophisticated, but with a wicked, brutal edge. Francois Hougaard bought it from close friend, paralympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius, to replace a Mercedes Benz C63 AMG (A Magnet for Girls). ‘It was fast, but it was a four-door and those are for older guys,’ he explains. That machine preceded an electric blue Golf GTI R32, which looked like Megan Fox and drove like Jonty Rhodes on an ecstasy binge.

Swimsuit model Jenna Pietersen rode shotgun in the Beemer, until their recent split.

He dates with the ferocity at which he drives. His relationship with Loui Fish, a former model …

‘It was wrong, I knew that all along. I was 21, she was 36. I hurt my family deeply. What’s more, the people she keeps company with were doing stuff that, if I was pictured in the background for example, would have ruined my career.’

Fish tried to sell the story of their relationship, intimate details included, to a popular South African magazine. They rejected it.

‘I’m not surprised she did that,’ Hougaard says. ‘But I’m over that. I was wrong. I said sorry to the people who matter. Case closed.’

He has a fast-paced social life – house parties at the Tuscan-style apartment he shares with blood brother and Bulls team-mate Stephan Dippenaar which have earned them warnings and fines from complex management; and midweek jols, often with Gauteng’s hip set, which he says are less frequent than they used to be and no longer include the consumption of alcohol.

The urban dictionary defines ‘baller’ as ‘(n) 1. One whose status in society has been earned by one’s possession of “game” (that is, proficiency at the game of life)’. They may as well have attached an image of Hougaard to the definition.

But there’s substance to this showman. The playboy can play. And he seemingly has all the attributes to suggest a promising future.

He’s had an epiphany, which is the first step in realising his immense potential.

‘I used to go out and party hard in the week, drinking and everything, then make practice and think all would be fine,’ he says. ‘That lifestyle catches up with you eventually. I started to feel it when I trained. I realise now that I can really do something special with this talent. I didn’t appreciate it enough before. Now it’s different. I realise natural ability can only take me so far. I want to go beyond the ordinary. That requires sacrifice.’

In terms of the measurables, he is poised, decisive and has an exquisite feel for the game. But that sterile checklist doesn’t begin to capture what moved Bulls director of rugby Heyneke Meyer to sign Hougaard in 2007.

‘When you’re trying to find the difference between a good player and a great one you have to feel it, it’s something that lies deep within their character,’ Meyer explains. ‘Everyone was warning him not to come to the Bulls because Fourie du Preez was here and Heini Adams was his back-up. He didn’t ask me to commit to playing him before he signed. He told me he’d force his way into the team.’

It’s a level of self-belief shared by the great players. A young Dan Carter told Robbie Deans the same thing when he started at the Crusaders. By the end of the season he’d replaced the legendary Andrew Mehrtens.

Hougaard replicated that rise to prominence, albeit not in his preferred position of scrumhalf. He simply couldn’t be left out.

‘We discussed it among the senior players and the coaching staff,’ recalls Du Preez, the world’s pre-eminent scrumhalf. ‘He was sensational in training and in the limited opportunities he had, and he was mentally tough too. We wanted him on the field, even if it was out of position at wing.’

Meyer admits to being impressed with Hougaard’s attitude in their initial exchanges, but he wanted to test his mettle further when he joined the Pretoria franchise.

He recalls a pre-season camp in George in December 2007. Hougaard was invited along to be measured in what has become renowned as the most gruelling pre-season training in the world.

Meyer’s directive to conditioning coach Basil Carzis was to push Hougaard to his breaking point.

‘I drilled him,’ Carzis says. ‘He came up to me during one of the sessions and you could see he was absolutely exhausted, but he told me: “You’ll never break me”. I tried and failed. He never relents.’

‘Some senior players told me to slow down. I couldn’t understand why I had to. I wasn’t there to play,’ Hougaard recalls.

Meyer says: ‘I knew then that he had the character to go with his immense talent. The one is nothing without the other. He has a quality you can’t define. It’s magic.’

Rewind a decade and Hougaard is an aspirant swimmer, top of his age division in the country for most of his junior career. His alarm sounded daily at 4am for 5am practices at Maties (Stellenbosch University) swimming club. He’d be back in the afternoon for two to three more hours in the pool.

He chose to relinquish his promising swimming career in Standard 7 (Grade 9) at Paul Roos in order to focus on rugby, but his work ethic never ceased.

‘He never missed a practice session in five years at high school,’ Hougaard’s school coach Frans van Niekerk recalls. ‘One day he was so sick he looked like death wrapped in a blanket at training, and he was wearing literally five or six layers of clothing. He refused to stop training. He doesn’t quit.’

A vicious competitive streak amplifies his potency. Dippenaar is well placed to give insight into this aspect of Hougaard’s character. They met as 11-year-olds and have been inseparable since.

‘We’d play games when we were kids; you know, touchies [touch rugby] or board games, whatever. Hougie would get pissed off if he lost and would do everything in his power to win the next match. Even now when we play Tekken 6 on PlayStation and I whip him, he loses his mind and wants to smash the control. He hates losing. If he’s in a team that loses on a Saturday, forget about talking to him. He usually cools down by the Monday.’

His father Rikus says there’s one quality that has marked Hougaard’s life.

‘I taught my children that what they start, they finish. In between, if they give anything less than 100%, they’re cheating themselves and the people depending on them.’

That energy, work ethic and refusal to succumb is everything the Springboks lacked on the Australasian leg of their Tri-Nations tour. Could this kid be the galvanising force they need?

Here’s a man-child who moved from Cape Town to Pretoria with the prospect of having to outplay the world’s best scrumhalf if he wanted to start. No problem. He then made such an impression on coaching staff and senior players known to demand impossibly high standards that they created a place for him in the run-on side. They needed a replacement for Bryan Habana, widely recognised as one of the world’s best wingers. That’s cool. He proceeded to excel against some of the planet’s finest players, and in a position he’d never played in before, scoring a number of decisive tries, none more so than the last-minute winner in the epic penultimate league-phase match of the 2010 Super 14 against the Crusaders. That 40-35 victory secured a home semi-final and he then scored the Bulls’ only try in their 25-17 win over the Stormers in the final, outplaying Habana.

Big talent, big self-belief, big match temperament, no fear of failure. When the quartet exists in the same package it makes for a preternatural athlete and a formidable opponent.

Bold predictions about his future, even those from Du Preez – ‘He is the future of the Bulls and Springboks at scrumhalf’ – need to be tempered with caution.

The vote of confidence is no doubt flattering, coming from a player who, in his spare time, walks on water, heals the terminally sick, raises the dead and will ultimately sacrifice himself for the sins of mankind.

But it must be remembered that Hougaard is essentially just a rookie, and so is prone to rookie errors. He has yet to fail. Yet to endure real criticism. Yet to have his self-belief dented. How he responds at those times, and indeed, how he negotiates the liberal praise being showered on him at present and the plaudits that will come in future, will define how he progresses.

Any absolute conclusion on Hougaard is premature. For now we’ll appreciate him for what he is – a baller.

– This article first appeared in the September issue of SA Rugby magazine

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