CAPE TOWN – Can you believe that Francois Hougaard is 30 years old?
That was the first thing that struck me when reading on the Worcester News website on Friday that the Paul Roos Gymnasium product has announced his retirement from Test rugby.
His Worcester Warriors club coach, former Stormers boss and Springbok assistant Alan Solomons, said that Hougaard was looking to map out his future, having signed a three-year extension to his contract in March.
“It is a major boost for us that he has made that decision because it means he won’t be going away for international duty,” Solomons told Worcester News.
“Francois had mentioned it (retiring from international rugby) and that’s his decision at the end of the day.
“He was contemplating focusing the rest of his career at Worcester.
“He is very happy here and I know that he is doing a business course as well for life after rugby, which you have got to be prepared for.”
But can the Boks do without Hougaard at this stage? At his best, he provides a unique skill-set that could spark the South African backline under Rassie Erasmus.
His experience of 46 Test matches would be invaluable, especially considering the fact that there is no stand-out South African scrumhalf in Super Rugby at the moment.
What would immediately count against Hougaard earning a recall for the June Tests – if he hadn’t retired – was the fact that he has been out with an ankle injury for the last two months.
But Solomons said that he was hopeful that Hougaard would be back for next weekend’s match against Harlequins, which would’ve given him just over a month to impress Erasmus.
Perhaps the fact that he returned to Worcester with injuries after that last two Rugby Championship tournaments may have played a role in Hougaard deciding to exit the world stage.
So, 46 Tests is certainly a good innings at the highest level for the man who first rocked up at senior provincial level as a youngster at a Western Province practice at Villager Rugby Club at Brookside in 2007.
Having been ignored by WP, Hougaard moved to the Bulls, where he came back to haunt his home province by starring for the Pretoria side – with his audacious side-step to leave Joe Pietersen for dead the iconic moment of the 2010 Super Rugby final at Orlando Stadium.
Hougaard’s speed across the ground was his major asset, and he terrorised defences with his quick feet.
Unfortunately, Heyneke Meyer first tried to turn him into a Fourie du Preez clone by forcing him to employ box-kicks as a main tactic, and then used him at wing on the 2012 end-of-year tour to Europe.
Hougaard even said at the time that he “felt bad” for specialist left wing Lwazi Mvovo, who had to sit on the bench.
“I must say I have felt bad being on this tour and seeing Lwazi Mvovo on the bench because I am playing wing. He has had an excellent year, and maybe it’s time for him to be given an opportunity,” Hougaard said in November 2012.
He played 18 Tests on the wing and 28 at scrumhalf – with his last game the 57-0 nightmare against the All Blacks in Albany last September.
But did he fulfil his potential as a Springbok?
While few would complain after having played so many Tests, Hougaard could rightly feel aggrieved at how things panned out at international level.
Yes, there were constant question marks about his kicking game and his passing, but was he given an opportunity to hone those skills throughout his career?
It is a real pity that he has hung up his Bok boots, as Hougaard is the one halfback who could’ve been South Africa’s answer to All Black star Aaron Smith.
Now we will never know…
But with the Bok ship having sailed, Hougaard has sought the stability of English Premiership rugby, while Erasmus ponders on picking the right man at No 9 against Wales and England in June.