Hougaard: ‘I don’t doubt myself’
21 Feb 2012
RYAN VREDE, writing in SA Rugby magazine, says Francois Hougaard is on the cusp of a defining season in his short career.
As a point of departure, let’s exclude the things we are not certain about with Hougaard. It is not an absolute that he will excel in his preferred position of scrumhalf as he has as a wing. It is likely, but not certain. We don’t know how he will respond to failure when, not if, it comes. That response will be telling and decisive to his career.
What do we know? We know he is neither Joost van der Westhuizen nor Fourie du Preez, the great scrumhalves who have preceded him at the Bulls and the Boks. Comparisons are futile. He is a hybrid of the two, possessing the former’s robustness in a greater measure than the latter’s tactical intelligence and technical excellence.
And we know he has the X factor – that unique ingredient shared by only a handful of professional sportsmen across the decades.
Attempts have been made to define it and capture its essence. Undoubtedly it can’t be learned, honed or taught; it may be connected to skill, but it is different – a skill can be learned, the X factor can’t. It is the raw material that is mined at birth; it is what you start with and end up with – that which you have no control over. X factor is Viv Richards, X factor is Jimi Hendrix, X factor is Jonah Lomu. When it intervenes, convention and technique are suspended, replaced by moments that take your breath away.
The X factor is often complemented by total belief. We’re talking about Bolt belief. Hougaard has Bolt belief. The great athletes all had or have it in unnatural measure. They are certain in uncertain times and convinced of the indemonstrable. They share this quality with the mentally ill. And herein lies its danger. On a sliding continuum of self-belief – with a lack of self-confidence at one end and full blown madness at the other – the great athletes operate just inside the latter. This is not to say it is the defining trait when ascribing greatness. Hougaard is not great. He merely shares the trait of total belief with men who are.
‘I don’t doubt myself. I always believe I can be the difference whether as a starter or off the bench. Always,’ he says. ‘I may not achieve that every time, but I think I can. It isn’t cockiness. I respect the game and the fact that others can influence the course of events, but I don’t see the point in denying my belief. The Bulls coaches have encouraged me to embrace it, partly I think because they’ve seen how it can benefit the team. Mostly it has come as a wing, but now I’ll have to show I can do it as a scrumhalf.’
Hougaard is on the cusp of a defining season in his short career. Initially deployed as a wing because such, said Du Preez, was his match-winning ability that he had to be accommodated, he is now poised to have an extended run in the No 9 shirt he coveted for so long. It is the culmination of careful succession planning. Now to see whether the Bulls have backed a winner.
‘To expect immediate success is unrealistic,’ Hougaard offers. ‘I haven’t played regularly at scrumhalf for some time. It will take some getting used to. That said, I have high expectations of myself and understand my importance in the context of the team’s success. I can’t take forever to settle. There is no room for that in Super Rugby. You’ll be exposed and the pressure will snowball. I love the challenge; I feel alive.’
It is essential that we explore the themes of failure and comparison that will inevitably mark Hougaard’s career. His rise through the junior ranks offers clues about how he will deal with the former. He doesn’t suffer from what Ed Smith describes as the ‘curse of talent’ in his book What Sport Tells Us About Life. After extensive research on the topic Smith argues, convincingly, that super-talented junior players often crumble at the first sign of adult rejection. He cites the example of Billy Beane – the prime subject in Michael Lewis’s best-selling book Moneyball. Beane was a star in football and basketball and a peerless baseball player. Yet he endured a miserable six-year career in the latter, averaging .219 with only three home runs. In reflecting on Beane’s failure, Lewis writes: ‘A wall came down between him and his talent and he didn’t know any other way than to smash through it. It wasn’t merely that he didn’t like to fail, it was as if he didn’t know how to fail.’
Prodigious young sportsmen, never having needed resilience, often lack the psychological capacity to develop it when life gets tough in the big leagues. Hougaard hasn’t been afflicted in this way. He failed to make an impression on Western Province’s Craven Week selectors and subsequently lost the opportunity to advance his cause for junior international selection, something he described as ‘devastating’.
‘My self-belief took a massive knock when that happened. I started to question my talent. But I recovered and it made me work harder than ever. When I look back now, I would have to say it was one of the most important moments of my life.’
He later forced his way into the Baby Boks side for the U19 World Championship by excelling in a friendly match against them while playing for WP Academy. On his return he remained only moderately rated by Province, before the then Bulls head coach, Heyneke Meyer, came calling.
‘I’ve seen many unbelievably gifted players, ones who I thought would be Boks at 19 or 20 years old, fall away because they had an easy ride through high school and in the provincial junior ranks. As soon as a challenge came or as soon as the pressure was turned up on them they folded,’ Meyer says. ‘What intrigued me about Francois was that that never happened to him. His story is inspirational and speaks of his mental strength. You can have loads of talent but no mental strength and you’ll get nowhere. He has used his failures to make him harder and that puts him in a position to have a great career.’
On the issue of comparison, the standard of measurement will always be Van der Westhuizen and Du Preez. An outstanding player he was, but Van der Westhuizen shouldn’t feature. He played in an era when defensive systems were far less sophisticated, one where the stream of information available on players was significantly less and when players outside the elite were a lot worse than they are now (ie, the gap has undoubtedly closed between the masters and minions). Du Preez not only played but excelled in an era when the game reached a new level of sophistication. Du Preez mastered economy of movement and clarity of thought and showed great control of emotional stimulus in high-pressure situations. He is the benchmark for Hougaard.
‘I want to be the best scrumhalf in world rugby. To get there I will have to at the very least meet the standard Fourie set,’ Hougaard says. ‘But the game will evolve to a level that will probably require me to go past that standard. It’s a big challenge but I wouldn’t be able to settle for a mediocre goal.’
Encouragingly, Hougaard will get better, not because he is talented (the flawed perception is that talent facilitates improvement), but because he possesses a personality that is capable of self-improvement. Smith writes: ‘Talent, ironically, has a nasty knack of protecting the talented from self-improvement.’ Never has this been truer than for one-time English wonderkid Danny Cipriani, whose stubborn refusal to take the counsel of more experienced flyhalves, Jonny Wilkinson included, contributed to the stagnation then capitulation of his game. Hougaard not so.
Rewind to 2010 on the morning of the Test against the All Blacks at Soccer City in Soweto. Hougaard was named to start in Du Preez’s injury-enforced absence but recognised the veteran’s value in his mental preparation. He sat Du Preez down over a coffee, bombarding him with questions, much as he had every day in training for the Bulls for two years preceding that moment in the hope that he could enter the matrix his mentor operated in.
‘He never stopped asking questions, never struck me as someone who couldn’t take criticism and was never one to feel like he had arrived, even after I watched him put in some unbelievable performances,’ Du Preez says of his student. Hougaard’s education under Du Preez is complete. It is time to reveal the fruits of that education.
Former England cricket captain Michael Atherton once wrote in a Times of London column: ‘Late promotion after years of unrequited desire can often bring immediate reward.’ Here’s hoping there’s truth in that offering for Hougaard.
– This article first appeared in the January-February issue of SA Rugby magazine. The March issue is on sale now.