Springboks

Why Hougie may plug Bok gap

2014-07-02 05:00
Francois Hougaard (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - Who Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer earmarks as his flyhalf at the outset of the Championship next month could also have a major bearing on which scrumhalf he chooses to plug the unfortunate Fourie du Preez gap.

Incumbent No 9 and still world-class customer Du Preez, 32, was confirmed on Tuesday as having an ankle injury serious enough for him to ruled out of the entire southern hemisphere tournament.

Given his vast, 70-cap experience and precious ability to read and control a game better than most other South African scrumhalves right now, the loss of Du Preez certainly dents the Boks’ chances of ousting New Zealand from their status as defending champions, even if there have been enough positives in other departments of late to suggest they’ll be seriously competitive nevertheless.

The veteran was just beginning to benefit from a decent run of international matches – important given that he plies his franchise trade in the much more modest arena of Japanese club rugby now – in the June window, looking increasingly more like the character who helped drive the World Cup 2007 success.

Du Preez may never quite be the player again who soared to such heights seven years back, but there has also been enough evidence to remind that his undoubted class keeps him out front from all other contenders, probably both up to and for RWC 2015.

It is also worth venturing that this sidelining setback is a case of “better now than next year”, as his role as one of the Bok vice-captains and most senior statesmen will be much more essential to summon for the global get-together.

The immediate question, naturally, is who fills the not insubstantial hole at scrumhalf for the Championship?

A personal view is that the designated second-choice No 9 for the latest Test against Scotland, Francois Hougaard, who took over from Du Preez around the half-hour mark in the pleasing 55-6 romp, may also be the most deserving candidate to begin the Championship quest against Argentina at his home ground of Loftus on August 16.

It would be true to say the 26-year-old has had a couple of “difficult” seasons internationally after seeming such a dazzling prospect in his early twenties – his own injuries at times haven’t helped the situation.

But his service to rookie flyhalf Handre Pollard was mostly sound during the course of the 40-odd minutes they were paired against the Scots (the No 10 was subbed after an excellent debut with nine minutes left) and the Boks lost no vibrancy in try-scoring terms after the exit of established general Du Preez.

My argument in favour of Hougaard getting a fresh stint as starting scrumhalf is based strongly around the very fact that the Boks of 2014 are a significantly more multi-pronged, adventurous beast than the side which operated in coach Meyer’s maiden season in 2012.

Then there was generally a much bigger emphasis on an accurate and prolific tactical kicking game, and Hougaard did not convince, for instance, in his clearance- or box-kicking; his confidence and natural effervescence seemed to dip as a result.

He is an unpredictable, X-factor type of player who revels a lot more when the game is fast and fluid, especially as he is a cheeky personal sniper and doesn’t lack attitude or commitment when it comes to tackling and cover-defending, even against hefty opposition ball-carriers.

When the Boks tackle Argentina home and away first up next month, I wouldn’t expect the Boks to deviate too much from their up-tempo spirit evidenced in the June Tests, so that would probably be right up Hougaard’s alley.

Then again, if a slightly more conservative game-plan is deemed wise by Meyer further up the drag against likely bigger obstacles the All Blacks and Wallabies, he may wish to again resort – even at the outset of the Championship, for re-familiarisation purposes -- to a scrumhalf with a known, stronger kicking game like Ruan Pienaar.

The Irish-based player is easily the most experienced of any No 9s the coach may wish to involve in his squad for the competition, even if as many as 41 of his 76 Test caps thus far have been as a substitute.

Pienaar, like Hougaard, has his critics because of a belief that he can lack urgency and snappiness of service at crucial times, but if Meyer decides he is going take the brave route of retaining the wunderkind Pollard at flyhalf for the start of the Championship – rather than an old, more predictable hand like Morne Steyn – it may well work in Pienaar’s favour.

Under the Pollard scenario, having the 30-year-old, widely-travelled Pienaar on his inside may be viewed as best compensation for surrendering Du Preez.

Yes, there will be squad-inclusion possibilities now for men like Cobus Reinach of the Sharks (a much more mature, rounded player in Super Rugby this year) and other overseas-based players Rory Kockott and perhaps Jano Vermaak, with a public clamour also for dark horses Faf de Klerk (Lions) and Piet van Zyl, another Bulls representative.

East London-born Kockott’s loyalty is not clear because he qualifies soon for France and may see that as a much likelier route to regular Test opportunities.

I suspect it will come down, at least initially, to a Hougaard v Pienaar shootout for the Bok vacancy ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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