Francois Hougaard is 30 years old. He played for the Bulls in Super Rugby 88 times and has represented the Springboks on 46 occasions. He is an Olympic Games Bronze medal winner for the South African Sevens team. He is no longer a young upstart but rather a wily veteran.
It’s a World Cup year and coaches will be fine-tuning their squads for the global showpiece. Barring injuries, top-tier teams already have their core personnel entrenched. The Tests leading up to Japan offer players the opportunity to raise their hands for gaps in the team.
Since Rassie Erasmus took over the Springbok reins, there’s been a lack of depth and experience at scrumhalf. Erasmus has done well to back Faf De Klerk who fell out of favour with Allister Coetzee. Over the course of 2018, De Klerk did exceptionally well to establish himself as a key player at both Sale Sharks and the Springboks. Given De Klerk’s significant influence and the way he’s employed to disrupt the opposition, Erasmus must consider him the primary scrumhalf.
Chances were also given to youngsters Ivan Van Zyl and Embrose Papier. Van Zyl offered a structured approach while Papier showcased zip and energy. Erasmus took some time before throwing Papier into the Test rugby cauldron. Plenty work must have been done behind the scenes because Papier’s composure and commitment were evident when he did get a go. That patience in preparation has paid off with Papier now starting for the Bulls in Super Rugby and displaying his capabilities.
It’s an inescapable fact though that both Papier and Van Zyl are still wet behind the ears. If De Klerk – who still only has 21 Tests under his belt – and Papier are pencilled in then Erasmus should want to include an experienced campaigner as his third-choice 9 to travel to the Land of the Rising Sun.
Enter Hougaard. Erasmus knows that a grizzled squad, along with a smattering of talented youngsters, has proven crucial to winning previous World Cups. It’s why he’s worked hard to bring the likes of Schalk Brits, Duane Vermeulen and Willie Le Roux into the fold.
Unlike other scrumhalves in contention, Francois Hougaard has World Cup experience and has won a Super Rugby title. He’s accustomed to playing in the most high-pressure environments and knowing how to deal with these pressures could place him in a useful mentorship role.
While at the Bulls, Hougaard served as understudy to Fourie Du Preez. While his game is different to Du Preez’s, it’s also true that no other current South African scrumhalf has come close to delivering the box-kicking precision and tactical master class that was Du Preez’s signature.
Hougaard has blown hot and cold for the Springboks. But one could argue that he was prone to inaccuracy because he was shunted from scrumhalf to wing so often. This is no longer the case – he’s been playing Premiership rugby for the Worcester Warriors since 2016 and has been doing so consistently at scrumhalf.
Ross Cronje offers appealing game management while Cobus Reinach has speed to burn. But no other current options, barring Ruan Pienaar, have Hougaard’s experience.
Like Pienaar, Hougaard has announced his retirement from the international game. But perhaps a ticket to the World Cup would see him answer the call, like Os Du Randt and Percy Montgomery did for Jake White.
At his best, Francious Hougaard has the strength to operate as a virtual fourth loose forward in defence and the X-factor attacking brilliance to break a game wide open. He has operated in tandem with Erasmus’s first-choice flyhalf Handre Pollard at the Bulls.
It’s time we see this halfback pairing reunited in a Test on the eve of Rugby’s biggest spectacle.
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