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
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
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
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
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.
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