Cape Town - With some exceptional form this season, Springbok Francois Hougaard may have made himself more valuable to the Bok cause, but may have diminished his chances of a starting role in the national side.
The supersport.com website reports that there is no doubt that part of the Bulls success this season has been the gritty and determined performances by Hougaard on the wing.
Strong and in-your-face, attacking space with a sidestep that has earned him praise, and a workrate that will be favoured by many infield positions, the utility back has certainly enjoying a year of success, and is currently one of the most dangerous attacking players in the Super Rugby competition.
But the question is – in the long run, is it good for Springbok rugby?
Hougaard has never made any secret of the fact he wants to play at 9 – he has built his reputation and hopes of becoming a Springbok regular on the halfback basis, and has often been seen as the replacement for Fourie du Preez in the national jersey.
But a series of struggles in the Bok jersey, some off-form decisions on attack and struggling with the basics of the position at times has hampered Hougaard, and seen him fall behind the likes of Cobus Reinach in the national queue for selection.
Add to that the return of Du Preez and Ruan Pienaar this season from injuries and with just three halfback positions open, he finds himself in a real fight to get into the national side.
That, in itself, has been why this season’s form has been a marvellous plus for Hougaard – who continues to be one of the hardest working players off the field.
Along with a savage gym regime, Hougaard’s fitness levels are superb and he has found new vigour by doing extra boxing sessions to increase fitness and stamina when he is away from the Bulls setup.
With this determination, the opening came when Akona Ndungane was injured and the Bulls needed a wing option.
Hougaard has done it before for Ludeke – scoring a superb try in the 2010 Super Rugby final when the coach found space for him and Du Preez in the same side, and the trademark move with the winger darting in around the fringes of the ruck was enough for him to write his name in the scoresheet on that magnificent night in Soweto five years ago.
One thing is clear, Hougaard is dangerous on the outside and is fast forming a lethal combination with Bjorn Basson and Jesse Kriel as a back-three unit.
This has been one of the biggest reasons why the Bulls haven’t brought him back to scrumhalf this past week when Rudy Paige was ruled out with injury.
The question that now arises though, is are the Bulls doing him justice by leaving him on the outside and if he has struggled in the past with his service from the base of the scrum, and his kicking game, is keeping him away from match situations in this position the right thing to do?
Of course its hard to argue against the form he is currently in, but for a player who wants to play halfback in the national side, it is one thing to show how dangerous you can be with ball in hand and how versatile to the cause, but it is another if you aren’t playing in the position the selectors will be looking at you in.
And in that way, Hougaard may well become a better bet for the selectors when they choose the 31-man squad to go to England later this year as the third scrumhalf, not only because of his versatility, but because of his form. Yet his chances of making it into the side at halfback ahead of Du Preez or Pienaar have diminished significantly.
Hougaard’s one plus that few wingers possess at the moment, is the way he can compete for the ball on the outside.
This has added a new dimension to the Bulls play because not only has he got the vision and sidestep to make inroads upfield, but also on defence he has stolen ten balls now – making him a threat for whoever the opposition are.
His low centre of gravity, coupled with the strength he possesses has seen him not only claim second position on the try-scoring stakes, but also sixth spot on the Turnovers Won stat – in an area dominated by flankers such as Liam Gill, Warwick Tecklenburg, Jordan Taufua, Richie McCaw and Luke Braid.
That in itself is exceptional and there is no doubt the Bulls are benefitting by his form at wing, but the question then needs to be when the right time would be to move him back to 9.
Ludeke was asked that question this week, and said the team were monitoring this and would find the right time to give him a run at halfback.
"The vital thing is the player is playing well at the moment and as soon as you get into that confidence and rhythm, it is easy to move around, you can slot in.
"He trains there every week, every day and works on the basics of halfback.
"It’s about the right time to move him there," Ludeke said.
"We felt that with Rudy out, it is not the right time to do that. Also, he is playing well and the back three is working well together and adding a lot to the side. We don’t want to break that too much.
"We also have his aspirations in mind and at the right time that will come into play."
Ludeke knows all too well the dangers of a player being a jack of all trades and master of none.
Hougaard at his best is the type of player you find a spot for in a team.
On the wing or at halfback, that debate will rage on.
But for now the Bulls are enjoying the fruits of his labour on the wing. Even if it might be a costly move later on.