Francois Hougaard (Gallo)
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
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
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
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
*Follow our chief
writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing