Winging it

RYAN VREDE, writing in SA Rugby magazine, says Francois Hougaard should replace Bryan Habana in the Springbok side.

Ignore the hairstyle that looks like a team of aeronautical engineers crafted it, so precise is its constitution. Pay no mind to the designer clothes, the flashy cars, the beautiful women and the A-list company Francois Hougaard keeps. He is no show pony. There is substance to go with his appreciable style.

Hougaard is a game-breaker with the potential to develop into a match-winner. Players of Hougaard’s ilk are a rarity and his talent must be harnessed and exploited by the Springbok selectors at the World Cup later this year. He plays with a level of belief unique to special players. It would be remiss to call it a swagger because it is in no way ostentatious or insolent. But his demeanour says he isn’t racked by self-doubt or fear of failure, which has been debilitating to young players of superior technical ability to his in the past.

‘I saw better players when I was recruiting for the union,’ says Heyneke Meyer, Bulls director of rugby, of his first encounter with Hougaard in late-2007. ‘But none of them had his mongrel and will to succeed. I’ve made mistakes recruiting technically exceptional players who’ve had nothing else about them. The best players I’ve seen have rarely relied on talent alone. Francois has got that something special to go with his obvious talent – the thing that gives you a sense of expectation when he is in possession of the ball.

‘He is the type of player who forces the opposition to focus on him, and one his team-mates will look to in the middle of a tight match and know he can change the course of events. We [the Bulls] don’t have any doubt that he will develop into a world-class No 9. But at the moment we need Fourie du Preez on the field in most games and for 80 minutes. But Francois is too good, too influential, to not be utilised. That’s why we still want him on the field even if it’s out of position. He’s become that important to us.’

Hougaard was central to the Bulls’ successful 2009 and 2010 Super 14 and Currie Cup campaigns where he played on the wing. In the 2010 Super 14 he made more positive contributions (successful gain-line breaks, effective tackles, metres run, passes completed, etc) on average per match than any South African wing.

And while he has made and continues to make strong impressions in a position he had never played in at any stage of his career prior to being asked to do so at the Bulls, Bryan Habana, the man Hougaard replaced when Habana joined the Stormers, has been floundering in a role he was once peerless in.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to build a compelling argument for the 2007 IRB Player of the Year’s inclusion in the Stormers’ run-on side. If form is the primary criteria for Springbok selection, Habana should not be considered, such has been his ineptitude in the past three seasons.

Statistics tell part of the tale of alarming regression – eight tries in 32 Tests since 2008 (he scored 30 in 36 preceding that). But statistics alone don’t capture just how desperately poor Habana has been by the standards he has set. There has been endless conjecture on this topic. It’s time we stopped asking why Habana is impotent, and started asking who should replace him in the Springbok squad.

Hougaard is the who.

However, Habana isn’t alone in his struggles. His World Cup-winning partner JP Pietersen has suffered with injuries and is a poor imposter of the player he was in France in 2007. Bjorn Basson thrilled in the Currie Cup in 2010 but has failed to replicate that form against the best players in the southern hemisphere, although his cause has been undeniably undermined by the Bulls’ general incompetence.

Lwazi Mvovo is a good prospect but is in need of refining, while Lionel Mapoe has struggled to kick on from the promise he showed in his rookie season.

The dynamic Gio Aplon’s claim for a regular run with the Springboks can no longer be ignored. There is no finer broken- field attacker in the country, and his ability in this regard ranks alongside the finest that New Zealand has to offer. With Aplon partnering Hougaard, and with the right service, the Springboks would have wingers with the skill set to unlock even the most organised defences.

Former Springbok wing Breyton Paulse is convinced Hougaard will be an asset if deployed as a Test wing.

‘He has no obvious technical limitations that would preclude his selection,’ the 64-cap flyer says. ‘He is fast, has good positional sense, is a sharp decision-maker under pressure, solid defender, is good under the high ball and can kick – the latter two being of primary importance to the modern wing.

‘He clearly has the temperament too. I remember watching him when he came into the side for the Soweto Test against the All Blacks last year [Hougaard played scrumhalf] and being struck by how composed he was. There were some senior boys who had forgettable evenings, but he played like a seasoned pro against the best side in the world. More to the point, he hasn’t folded in major play-off matches in the position for the Bulls. If you don’t have the mental toughness to go with the talent you’ll never make it at a high level. Hougaard has both those elements.’

Hougaard’s exploits have attracted praise from astute observers outside the Republic too. Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder, for one, is taken by the 22-year-old.

‘We’ve faced them [the Bulls] a couple of times with Hougaard on the wing and I can’t remember having an easy ride against him,’ Blackadder says. ‘At the Crusaders we encourage our wingers to pop up in unorthodox positions, we don’t like to constrict them with structure. It gives us an air of unpredictability. I see that free spirit in Hougaard, and in the right playing environment and with sound tactics, he is an asset.

‘Last year I was surprised to find out he is actually a halfback,’ he continues. ‘You’d never say that when watching him play on the wing. He is international class there. I was in the company of other Kiwi coaches who were having a rap about him not so long ago and they share my thoughts. A fine player.

‘To get the best out of him the Springboks would have to adapt their tactics, though. In fact, there are a couple of players who are wasted in the side. There’s such a wealth of attacking talent in this country. I mean, when you have a scrummie who plays wing with no discernible drop in standard, you know you’re blessed.’

Hougaard is predictably cagey on the issue – ‘I will play wherever the coach selects me’ – but doesn’t lack the belief that he could excel if asked to do the job.

‘I never go out there thinking “I hope I do well”. I expect to do well. Maybe some players would have felt uncomfortable being asked to play out of position and that’s understandable, but I love the challenge,’ he says.

‘There was probably no massive expectation of me [playing wing] from others. I think most people saw it as temporarily filling a gap left by Bryan. But I looked at it differently. I set myself high standards. I want to be the best in everything I do. I never want to hide behind the excuse of not being a specialist wing. That’s a coward’s way out. I think because I’ve embraced playing wing it’s changed me. It’s made me a better all-round player.’

Meyer counters: ‘I think he has changed us for the better. I like the idea of specialists in positions, but Francois has made himself very difficult to leave out. The senior players also feel like he elevates the calibre of the team when he plays. I don’t have any doubt he could do the same for the Springboks.’

– This article first appeared in the June issue of SA Rugby magazine. The July issue will be on sale from Wednesday, 22 June.
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