Francois Hougaard has become the latest victim of the utility player tag, leaving his Springbok future in jeopardy.
12 months ago, Hougaard was considered the heir apparent to Fourie du Preez’s green and gold number nine jersey. He had been groomed by Du Preez himself, who vacated the position he held with distinction for some eight years.
He started his Test career with much promise in 2009, adding an attacking dimension to the Springbok side that had eluded the Boks for years.
Three years on, though, Hougaard nears a crossroads in his international career, having been shunted from scrumhalf to wing with regularity and enjoying little success in either position.
Much like other multi-talented players such a Ruan Pienaar, Frans Steyn and Pat Lambie, Hougaard’s versatility is both his greatest strength and weakness.
He has the X-factor and possesses all the skills necessary to flouring on the global stage. Brash, abrasive and a hard-hitting defender, he has pace to burn and the ability to turn a match on its head with a moment of individual brilliance.
However, in the context of the Springboks’ conservative gameplan, these skills count for little. At scrumhalf, his preferred position, he is instructed to play a tactical game, which effectively nullifies his attacking threat, while he gets precious little opportunities out on the wing.
He is a classic case of a highly gifted player who doesn’t fit into a particular gameplan and is slowly but surely regressing and succumbing to the utility curse.
His dilemma is twofold in that he lacks the tactical dimension that the Boks’ approach demands from a scrumhalf and the defensive prowess of a specialist wing, leaving him between a rock and a hard place.
He is a solid, aggressive defender but without the acute knowledge of wing defence that comes with experience, he was a liability in the Boks’ defensive system and exposed by both the Wallabies and the All Blacks in the past fortnight.
Having lost the position of first-choice scrumhalf he held at the start of e 2012 international season, Hougaard now faces the possibility of being relegated to ‘super sub’ status alongside Lambie.
With Pienaar and Jano Vermaak being better tacticians at the base and a plethora of lethal wings such as JP Pietersen, the Ndungane twins, Bjorn Basson and rising star Raymond Rhule available to Heyneke Meyer, Hougaard may soon find himself on the outside looking in.
By Quintin van Jaarsveld
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