Francois Hougaard (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - Springbok scrumhalf Francois Hougaard may have to accept that his future is on the wing for the national team after a string of mediocre performances behind the scrum.
According to the supersport.com website, Hougaard is set to start out wide this week with the stability of Ruan Pienaar set to be preferred at No 9, as coach Heyneke Meyer looks to make tweaks to the side that drew 16-all against Argentina in Mendoza for this weekend’s match against Australia in Perth.
Hougaard’s biggest strength is his elusiveness and his grit in space, a player who can exploit the open field and find holes in defences on attack. But behind the scrum, even though it has been his preferred position, he has struggled this season behind an inexperienced Bok pack that haven’t always given him great ball.
Whenever Pienaar has appeared on the field, it has seen an improvement in the way the Bok backline functions, with Hougaard’s service to his flyhalf also being questioned at times.
It has become rather clear that both Hougaard and Morne Steyn are under increasing pressure to perform or be dropped. While it doesn’t seem like Meyer will throw young Johan Goosen into the deep end at flyhalf this weekend, a starting role for him cannot be too far away if the current trend continues.
Still, Hougaard is a player that - as Meyer likes to point out - has that X-factor. Last year when Bryan Habana was struggling for form at the World Cup, Hougaard’s appearances off the bench and on the wing were the breath of fresh air the team often needed and it is understandable he is highly-rated for his gamebreaking ability.
But at the moment, playing him at No 9 comes at a cost, and slow ball against the Aussies is something the Boks can ill-afford at the moment. And judging from Meyer’s comments there is a real indication that Hougaard could move to wing permanently.
Meyer has warned that these two away games are the last chances for combinations across the field. Reiterating his desire for players of “character”, the Bok coach is set to make the hard decisions sooner rather than later if players fail to produce.
All that starts with this weekend’s match where Hougaard is likely to be moved back onto the wing. A decent performance for Pienaar behind the scrum may seal it, and Hougaard may well have to resign himself to the fact that if he wants to play in the starting line-up, he will have to start competing with the wingers to do so.
One thing is certain, the entire team has been put on notice to improve their play or face the consequences. As Meyer points out, the performance in Mendoza was unacceptable, and the Boks know this.
Now he wants to see character from players who can rise above the challenges that the opposition pose.
“You only learn when you play away. At home the 50-50 decisions tend to go your way because the crowd is behind you. You only learn when players are under pressure, you can’t see how they will react in training. They have to be placed under huge pressure for you to see what they are made of,” Meyer said of the lessons learnt in Mendoza.
“I’ve always said we would use this year to give players opportunities to prove themselves. A guy like Eben (Etzebeth) for instance, is a world class player - he is like Bakkies Botha at the same age and he has shown he deserves to be there, and he can play under pressure. I’m a big believer in players with character.
“But this is the last opportunity for combinations, I know I have been criticized for certain selections and certain positions. I know where I’m going to and I know what is the best position for certain players. I’ll take these two games, give guys a chance and then I’ll know which is the best positions for them.”
The last sentence seems to point directly to the 9/10 combination, which has received the majority of criticism thus far, but it can also point to Andries Bekker, who has not performed close to expectations, or the loose trio, which also needs to function more as a unit on the field.
Meyer has placed a load of emphasis on protecting the Boks ball - which was one of the massive problems in Mendoza with 12 turnovers. While he is right to point out that the classic opensider would not have made such a difference in Argentina, he also must admit that the balance of the loose trio wasn’t right, and the entire pack did little to protect the ball. Ruck Cleanouts were never at a premium in Mendoza, and they will have to be in Perth if the Boks are to have front-foot ball.
This is apparently the reason why Keegan Daniel was omitted from the squad, even though Meyer is on record as saying Australia would have suited his game. The Bok coach has chosen to go for a more balanced loose trio, where Duane Vermeulen can be expected to be joined by Willem Alberts and Marcel Coetzee, while Francois Louw could find himself on the bench if the Bok coach’s comments are anything to go by.
“The Sharks and Stormers never played with a specialist openside fetcher the entire Super Rugby season. Even a guy like Richie McCaw isn’t a classical opensider. I’m a big fan of McCaw, because he can clean, defend and steal balls. Marcel can be the next McCaw, he just needs to become a little more clinical at the breakdown.
“As for Keegan, I know I said Australia would fit his gameplan more, but I feel we don’t have a classical No 8 at the moment, and Pierre Spies and Ryan Kankowski are both out. Against Argentina, although we competed well at the front of the lineout, we gave them easy ball at the back. I wasn’t happy with the way we competed there. Duane is a specialist No 8 and has combined well with Andries and Eben for the Stormers. I had to question if the fifth guy on the bench should be another number No 8 or a specialist opensider. I want the option if the ref allows a bit more at the breakdown to have such a guy on the bench, so it is unfortunate for Keegan.”
The one good aspect at the moment, and one which is hardly mentioned, is that when the injuries to JP Pietersen, Bismarck du Plessis, Heinrich Brussow, Pierre Spies, Schalk Burger, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Siya Kolisi and Bjorn Basson are over, and Kankowski returns from Japan, the amount of depth in the national ranks should be good.
Until then the Boks will need to find a way to put up a better performance than Mendoza. Or risk losing their places.