Rugby Championship

Moment of truth for Hougaard

2017-09-15 12:37
Francois Hougaard (Gallo)

Cape Town - While the Springboks look a side on the up in 2017, there are still a few areas were depth is a concern in the current set-up. 

At hooker, for example, Allister Coetzee has one of the best No 2s in world rugby in Malcolm Marx. 

The hard-working Lions front-rower is improving his lineout throwing all the time while his physicality on defence, on the ground and in contact makes him a hugely important player.

But, should Coetzee find himself without Marx in a big game, he would have to turn to the largely untested Bongi Mbonambi with Chiliboy Ralepelle as his bench cover. 

Coetzee, thanks largely to good results and few injuries, has been able to remain largely consistent with his team selection in 2017 which means that depth in a lot of areas has not been tested. 

He has had the luxury of backing a winning team week in and week out, and when injuries have come they have come in positions where the Boks have other obvious options. 

Another area of the park where there has been a slight concern among Bok supporters is at scrumhalf, and that will have amplified with the news on Friday morning that Ross Cronje has been ruled out of Saturday's vital clash against the All Blacks in Albany with illness. 

The scrumhalf conundrum has been one that has haunted the Boks ever since the retirement of Fourie du Preez at the end of the 2015 World Cup. 

Last year, Coetzee started nine of his 12 Tests with Faf de Klerk as his No 9 with Rudy Paige starting the other three. 

It didn't go well. 

De Klerk had worked his way into the Bok set-up with some stellar performances in an enterprising Lions side that gave him the license to play a high risk, high reward brand of rugby. 

On the Tests stage, however, De Klerk struggled as his kicking game was exposed and his decision-making was questionable. 

De Klerk eventually lost his Super Rugby place to Cronje, and by the time the 2017 international season came around, Coetzee had his new No 9. 

Cronje has been good in a Bok jersey, suggesting that he could be the long-term option to take this side to 2019. 

But this latest set-back means that he will have missed two of the Boks' seven Tests this year. 

The 28-year-old also missed the Boks' trip to Salta where they beat Argentina 41-23. 

In that match, Francois Hougaard was given the scrumhalf responsibilities in Cronje's absence and emerged as one of the few Bok players to be heavily criticised for his performance. 

The big issue was Hougaard's slow, undecided service and his tendency to take a step or three before releasing his passes. 

Hougaard was removed after 56 minutes in the match. 

Then, last week, Hougaard was poor once more in the final 15 minutes of the Boks' 23-23 draw against the Wallabies as he lacked accuracy in his passing. 

Now 29, Hougaard has been given another massive opportunity for Saturday's clash against the best in the world. 

It will be just the 16th time that he has started in the No 9 jersey for the Springboks in what will be his 46th Test match. 

Last year, Coetzee decided that Hougaard would be best used on the wing - a decision also employed by Heyneke Meyer at times and one that now looks to have been binned. 

Having promised so much ever since making his debut against Italy back in 2009, Hougaard's international career has not really kicked on. 

The disappointment of missing out on a place in the 2015 World Cup squad prompted a move onto the Sevens stage where he featured in the Blitzboks side that won bronze at the Rio Olympics, but now Hougaard is back in the 15s set-up with Worcester Warriors. 

The fact that Hougaard is the only overseas-based player currently being backed by Coetzee shows how highly-rated he is, but the performance on Saturday needs to mirror that. 

He has had a number of cracks at making the scrumhalf position his own without ever being commanding enough to do it. 

The ability is unquestionably there. He has proved that he has a good kicking game, that he is solid under the high ball, that his defence is sound and that he has the ability to create opportunities with his dangerous, sniping runs. 

But, on Saturday, the quality and speed of his service will be most crucial. 


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