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Fresh Bok chapter for Hougie?

2012-09-05 10:13

Cape Town – Whether he is content to remain a versatile customer is something to be gauged with time, but many Springbok supporters will feel relieved that in an international sense, at least, Francois Hougaard has returned “home” to the wing.

The 24-year-old Bulls player, in 20 prior Tests and with only half of them starts, has always looked more incisive and slippery out wide than in trying to provide the necessary direction and correct option-taking at scrumhalf.

Based on this season’s iffy Bok form at No 9, his shift to left wing (it appears veteran Bryan Habana will continue his reasonably impressive adjustment to his “wrong” side) seemed inevitable at some stage – and it came on Wednesday when coach Heyneke Meyer announced a much-altered and arguably more positive, dynamic line-up to face Australia in the Castle Rugby Championship in Perth on Saturday.

Hougaard has overwhelmingly shown more X-factor when snaking into the fray, and quite often also over the advantage line, as an “impact” presence from wing – remember his game-changing try in the touch-and-go World Cup 2011 opener against Wales? – and now has a chance to put his stamp on the berth over a full 80 minutes, potentially, this weekend.

At the same time, the omitted Lwazi Mvovo can count himself a little unlucky after mostly catching a cold at No 11 in the bilious team performance in Mendoza, whilst Ruan Pienaar, Hougaard’s replacement at scrumhalf, has a golden opportunity by contrast to make that key slot his own for a while.

He has a superior kicking game to the player he replaces and, as an oft-used substitute this year, has also just looked more comfortable and slicker in the main passing aspect ... maybe his installation will bring out more adventurous qualities in No 10 Morne Steyn.

In the continued absence of JP Pietersen through injury, and with Saturday’s opponents boasting such game-breakers by reputation as Kurtley Beale and Digby Ioane, it is a comfort that the Boks may be able to benefit from Hougaard’s often well-timed interventions into attacking plays – there is something of a Pieter Rossouw resemblance, if not necessarily in appearance, to the way he suddenly intrudes like a knife through warm butter.

The Bok loose trio has also been significantly reworked after the galling experience in Argentina, with Jacques Potgieter now right out of the match-day 22 and Duane Vermeulen getting a welcome, deserved maiden outing for his country at No 8.

Whether the big Stormers/WP unit manages to last a full game is a matter for conjecture, as he is yet to finish even a Currie Cup game after long-term injury, but somebody like Willem Alberts could easily shift back to that position from blindside if necessary at an advanced stage of the contest.

The one constant in Bok teams under Meyer’s tutelage this year has been Marcell Coetzee at open-side flank: he stays there, but is just beginning to feel some heat to confirm his suitability to that role.

The Sharks youngster will be even more pressured to do well on Saturday – up against Wallaby specialist fetcher Michael Hooper and perhaps later also Liam Gill – with the knowledge that Bath-based Francois Louw has been summoned to the Bok bench and may be thrown into the fray if the Boks are playing second fiddle at the breakdown again.

There can be few quibbles, I believe, with the coach’s decision to recall Juandre Kruger to the second row at the expense of Andries Bekker, although he will have to be at his very best as a lineout factor to justify his presence ahead of the 2.08m Capetonian.

Meyer did say ahead of the two Argentina Tests – Bekker started each of those at No 5 after Kruger had played all three Tests against England and fared acceptably well – that the latter was “not really being dropped” and that he simply wanted to see what Bekker could bring to his brew.

After a good enough game at Newlands, the Stormers second-rower was guilty of some vital defensive lapses in Mendoza – not something Meyer takes too kindly too – and a suspicion remains that he is constantly struggling for maximum fitness, into the bargain.

Perhaps more debatable is the decision to opt for a “tighter” lock, in the form of penalty-prone Flip van der Merwe, as the bench back-up at Patersons Stadium, rather than Bekker who could provide some game-busting qualities of his own in a fourth-quarter capacity.

Plenty of observers will be keen to see whether the Cheetahs’ rookie pivot Johan Goosen, another infusion to the substitutes’ ranks despite very little game-time in recent months, gets a few minutes to strut his stuff.

With Goosen, Mvovo and Pat Lambie as the backline reserves – there is no designated scrumhalf as Hougaard could go back there if required – the Boks look a little thin for midfield replacements should the need arise.

But both Lambie and Habana have some experience at centre and even the starting fullback Zane Kirchner (still not everybody’s cup of tea, incidentally) could be employed in the No 13 channel based on minor prior involvement there.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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