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    Hougie starts his haul back

    2014-01-29 22:56
    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - Scrumhalf will be a key area where early-season pointers are sought by both franchises when the Bulls entertain the Stormers in a friendly in Polokwane on Saturday.

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    From a national point of view, the return of Francois Hougaard to the Bulls’ No 9 jersey against the old southern enemy is perhaps of special interest, given his prior successes – yet also some notably problematic periods – at Springbok level in the course of a 27-cap career thus far.

    The feisty 25-year-old’s selection for the “main” game at 17:00 (the Bulls put out an earlier combo at 15:00 against the Golden Lions) at least serves as some sort of indication that he is fighting fit at last after consecutive, unusually difficult seasons for him in 2012 and 2013.

    In the first, his scrumhalf play deteriorated to an unexpected extent as Heyneke Meyer began his Test coaching tenure in the otherwise satisfying enough three-Test series against England.

    Hougaard was indecisive as a game-reading “general” then and also fell victim several times to charge-down of his clearance kicks as he took a step back and became too laboured and predictable in that department.

    Then his quest for redemption a year later was cruelly cut short in mid-winter – for the remainder of the season – as he fell victim to an ankle injury that required surgery.

    At his confident best, of course, Hougaard is a real rugby dynamo, always sniping for gaps, maintaining a high overall work-rate and being as gutsy as any backline player if comes to, say, stopping in his tracks a rampaging 120kg tight forward.

    The occasional experiment with the former Paul Roos pupil in a left wing capacity has mercifully been shelved – at least for the time being – allowing him to refocus fully on the nuances and staple demands of scrumhalf play.

    While Frans Ludeke has warned that not too much should be read into his two line-ups on Saturday, it is difficult not to escape a suspicion that the XV for the later game seems rather closer to his desired first team.

    So if that argument holds some water, Hougaard has the inside lane at the start of the season on the Bulls’ recruit from last year’s unusually successful Cheetahs side, Piet van Zyl.

    The last-named player is not dissimilar to Hougaard for slippery X-factor and impulsiveness: perhaps a challenge for both will be to tick the right boxes in convincing Ludeke they can bring calm direction and tactical authority to proceedings when really necessary.

    For the moment, ageing Japan-based icon Fourie du Preez and Ulster’s in-form Ruan Pienaar seem reasonably hard to dislodge as first and second respectively in the Bok scrumhalf pecking order.

    As far as the Stormers are concerned, Louis Schreuder, whom many considered a controversial pick by Meyer as an “extra” squad scrumhalf on the all-conquering European tour late last year, has the opportunity to build an edge over reserve Nic Groom.

    These two have a close rivalry at the franchise; is one going to finally pull obviously clear?

    Both are under a bit of pressure because some observers feel the Newlands-based outfit could be better served for genuine assertiveness and personality in the key position at Super Rugby level.

    The inconclusive, ping-pong tussle between the two arguably only reflects how urgent it is for either of them to move up a discernible gear in 2014.   

     There are a few other decent head-to-heads on paper in the feature game (not televised) at Peter Mokaba Stadium, even if some may be relatively short-lived as the respective coaches make liberal use of the subs bench at this very infant stage of the campaign.

    Some that come to mind include the battle at outside centre between JJ Engelbrecht and Juan de Jongh, both of whose Bok causes were not helped by the return of stalwart Jaque Fourie to midfield for the end-of-year tour, promising Arno Botha locking horns at blindside flank with gnarly Schalk Burger, and the Stormers’ versatile Rynhardt Elstadt returning to No 4 duty (in the absence for the moment of Eben Etzebeth) to encounter that similarly physical customer Flip van der Merwe.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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