Fran­cois Hougaard’s spec­tac­u­larly quick fall from grace

CityPress - - Sport - Dan Retief dan.retief@city­ Fol­low me on Twit­ter @retief­dan

Reach­ing the pin­na­cle of achieve­ment is what drives sports­peo­ple – but the fall from grace can be pre­cip­i­tous.

Sel­dom has this been more true than in the case of Fran­cois Hougaard.

In Oc­to­ber, Hougaard ex­pe­ri­enced the head­i­est of mo­ments when he dived over – un­der the cross­bar – for a try against the All Blacks at El­lis Park (now Emi­rates Park).

Not too many can claim to have scored against the men in black, but run­ning in sup­port of a break­out move, Hougaard, his bright yel­low boots a blur, soared over the line for a cru­cial touch­down in what was to be­come a fa­mous 27-25 vic­tory for the Boks. His score was voted South Africa’s try of the year in 2014.

Hougaard was play­ing scrum half – his favoured po­si­tion.

By Novem­ber, he was still in the Spring­bok test squad, as re­serve No 9 to first-choice Cobus Reinach. But by last week, at the start of a new in­ter­na­tional sea­son, he had slipped off the edge.

Although na­tional coach Heyneke Meyer in­cluded five scrum halves and four wings in his train­ing squad, Hougaard was not among them.

The chunky Blue Bull had fi­nally fallen vic­tim to the ca­reer-long phe­nom­e­non of coaches play­ing him out of po­si­tion.

He can also now be counted among the many out­stand­ing young backs who were bought but then al­lowed to suf­fo­cate in the re­stric­tive play­ing pat­tern of the Bulls.

It is not of­ten re­called, but Hougaard made his de­but for Western Province – the nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion for a for­mer Paul Roos school­boy.

He be­came one of the many play­ers that Western Province al­lowed to slip through the cracks when the Bulls came knock­ing.

But at Lof­tus, Hougaard had the mis­for­tune of find­ing him­self as an un­der­study to a player with a set of scrum half skills around which the Bulls had built their struc­ture: Fourie du Preez.

How­ever, it was ob­vi­ous that Hougaard pos­sessed ex­tra­or­di­nary power for his size, as well as ex­cep­tional pace – so the Bulls de­cided to de­ploy him on the wing.

It was in this po­si­tion that he scored a su­perb try in the Bulls’ vic­tory over the Storm­ers in the 2010 Vo­da­com Su­per 14 fi­nal at Or­lando Sta­dium.

Sadly, though, when Hougaard did start in the No 9 jersey, Bulls coaches tried to re­make him in the im­age of Du Preez, and he never quite man­aged it.

Du Preez is one the finest tac­ti­cal kick­ers in the game and Hougaard, more given to run­ning and pass­ing, just could not get it down pat.

A sim­i­lar sce­nario oc­curred at the Spring­boks, where he was of­ten shifted to the wing or put on the sub­sti­tutes bench.

He came off the bench and on to the wing to score what was the win­ning try against Wales in the pool game in the World Cup in New Zealand in 2011, but he was never quite a spe­cial­ist No 9.

Hougaard (27) has racked up 35 tests – 13 start­ing at scrum half and seven as wing, with the rest as a re­place­ment.

It is not clear whether some dis­ci­plinary ac­tion might be be­hind his un­ex­pected de­mo­tion – he does have a love of tat­toos, the good life and fast cars – but it is dif­fi­cult, in the lit­tle time left ahead of the World Cup, to see him sneak past the other scrum halves and wings Meyer has called up.

Sadly, like fly halves such as Gaffie du Toit, Jan­nie de Beer and Franco Smith, who strug­gled to de­liver what Henry Honi­ball could, Hougaard has been pushed into the wilder­ness be­cause he failed to be “the next Fourie du Preez”.

Remembering the thrills that he pro­vided as a young­ster, it would have been nice to see whether he could have been “the first Fran­cois Hougaard”.

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