We’ve had plenty of so-called utility backs over the years – Brent Russell, Ruan Pienaar and even Frans Steyn, to name just three. And, can we now perhaps add another to the list? Francois Hougaard?
All these men are outstanding rugby players, but in the Springbok team none of them were or have been able to tie up a specific position. Russell floated between flyhalf, fullback and wing before deciding to go overseas, Pienaar was scrumhalf, flyhalf, wing and fullback, before deciding to go overseas and, yes, Steyn played at flyhalf, fullback, wing and centre, before also opting to go overseas.
Russell’s days as a Bok are over but Pienaar and Steyn are back in the squad and, hopefully, now settled in a specific position. Pienaar, it seems, has finally put his foot down and will now only be available as a scrumhalf, while Steyn, too, appears to be settled at inside centre. I think everyone will agree these positions suit these two players best – and the Boks will get the best out of them in these positions.
Now, what of Hougaard? There is little doubt the Bulls man is an exceptional rugby player, but in what position will his franchise, province and country benefit the most from his particular set of skills?
Is he really the next big thing in South African scrumhalf play, now that he’s playing in the position full-time following the trek overseas of Fourie du Preez, or does his future belong in another position, perhaps centre or wing?
As solid as he’s been in 2012, has Hougaard been as effective for the Bulls this year at No 9 as he was last season and the year before that while on the wing? I don’t think so and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Hougaard’s kicking out of hand – the so-called box-kick – from the base of the scrum is not as accurate as it should be (as pointed out by Heyneke Meyer recently), while the limited space he has around the scrum prevents him from making the kind of impact we are used to.
What has made Hougaard such a special player in recent years is his burst of speed, his energy and his pace – and he’s torn all kinds of defences to pieces when given the space and time to do his thing. But only out on the wing. He just isn’t the same terrier-like player in the No 9 jersey.
Either Meyer or Hougaard himself will have to take a tough decision at some stage in the very near future – scrumhalf or centre or wing? Or will Hougaard become the perfect super-sub?