All eyes on Hougaard
It may be true that Francois Hougaard’s performance in last weekend’s first test against England did little to convince those who believe he is more adept at playing wing that they are incorrect.
But the nuggety halfback will have a perfect chance to show his critics just why he is so highly rated when he prepares for another onslaught this weekend at Coca-Cola Park in Johannesburg on Saturday.
Hougaard will be the first to admit he didn’t have his best game. Even the stats seem to count against him with a nett metres gained stat of minus 27 hardly the type of reading any player would like.
Of course, having a R2.2-million car delivered to the Bok hotel in a test week could not have helped his distraction level this week either.
But while Hougaard served as Fourie du Preez’s understudy for the last few years, he still has patches where his service is unsteady and slow and it hampers his all-round game. Much of it has to do with the platform his forwards give him, and the certainty he has in launching the next phase of attack.
But even Hougaard would have recognised his first-half performance against England wasn’t up to his high standards. England pressurised him, got into his face, and he was slow to react, believing he had enough time to clear the ball at times.
The Boks quickly rectified this at halftime, and for all the praise being showered Ruan Pienaar’s way, it must be remembered that Hougaard was on the field when the first try was scored and was part of the change to quicker ball.
Still, it is sometimes hard to shake off the perception that he needs space to show his worth, as he has done on countless occasions on the wing where speed and timing count in his favour.
The Boks have been working hard on Hougaard’s box-kick this week. They have also placed a premium on quick go-forward ball, quick enough to splinter the English defence and give the big Bok runners a chance of getting the go-forward ball they so desperately want to gain the upper hand.
Coach Heyneke Meyer went out of his way to back Hougaard this week, and believes the determined scrumhalf will find a way to cope with the pressure if England try the same tactics this coming week.
“I don’t think Francois Hougaard is a guy that gets rattled easily. I’d like to put it in a different perspective, I think they put a lot of pressure on the breakdown and on our kicking game,” Meyer countered.
“We’ve worked on that and on a plan to counter that. All credit to them, they did their homework, but I’m sure Francois will be better this week.
“I thought he was good in other phases of play, it was just his kicking game. We’ve changed a few things as well and hopefully it will go better this week.”
Bok assistant coach Johan van Graan offered a stat of five lost possessions in 96 breakdowns in the game. Statistically that might sound like a small percentage, especially when three of those were ball carriers losing possession. But for a team that sets high standards, and knows that one turnover ball or one lost chance can be the difference between victory and defeat, it is not good enough.
Expect Hougaard to bounce back this week with aplomb.