Reaching the pinnacle of achievement is what drives sportspeople – but the fall from grace can be precipitous.
Seldom has this been more true than in the case of Francois Hougaard.
In October, Hougaard experienced the headiest of moments when he dived over – under the crossbar – for a try against the All Blacks at Ellis Park (now Emirates Park).
Not too many can claim to have scored against the men in black, but running in support of a breakout move, Hougaard, his bright yellow boots a blur, soared over the line for a crucial touchdown in what was to become a famous 27-25 victory for the Boks. His score was voted South Africa’s try of the year in 2014.
Hougaard was playing scrum half – his favoured position.
By November, he was still in the Springbok test squad, as reserve No 9 to first-choice Cobus Reinach. But by last week, at the start of a new international season, he had slipped off the edge.
Although national coach Heyneke Meyer included five scrum halves and four wings in his training squad, Hougaard was not among them.
The chunky Blue Bull had finally fallen victim to the career-long phenomenon of coaches playing him out of position.
He can also now be counted among the many outstanding young backs who were bought but then allowed to suffocate in the restrictive playing pattern of the Bulls.
It is not often recalled, but Hougaard made his debut for Western Province – the natural progression for a former Paul Roos schoolboy.
He became one of the many players that Western Province allowed to slip through the cracks when the Bulls came knocking.
But at Loftus, Hougaard had the misfortune of finding himself as an understudy to a player with a set of scrum half skills around which the Bulls had built their structure: Fourie du Preez.
However, it was obvious that Hougaard possessed extraordinary power for his size, as well as exceptional pace – so the Bulls decided to deploy him on the wing.
It was in this position that he scored a superb try in the Bulls’ victory over the Stormers in the 2010 Vodacom Super 14 final at Orlando Stadium.
Sadly, though, when Hougaard did start in the No 9 jersey, Bulls coaches tried to remake him in the image of Du Preez, and he never quite managed it.
Du Preez is one the finest tactical kickers in the game and Hougaard, more given to running and passing, just could not get it down pat.
A similar scenario occurred at the Springboks, where he was often shifted to the wing or put on the substitutes bench.
He came off the bench and on to the wing to score what was the winning try against Wales in the pool game in the World Cup in New Zealand in 2011, but he was never quite a specialist No 9.
Hougaard (27) has racked up 35 tests – 13 starting at scrum half and seven as wing, with the rest as a replacement.
It is not clear whether some disciplinary action might be behind his unexpected demotion – he does have a love of tattoos, the good life and fast cars – but it is difficult, in the little time left ahead of the World Cup, to see him sneak past the other scrum halves and wings Meyer has called up.
Sadly, like fly halves such as Gaffie du Toit, Jannie de Beer and Franco Smith, who struggled to deliver what Henry Honiball could, Hougaard has been pushed into the wilderness because he failed to be “the next Fourie du Preez”.
Remembering the thrills that he provided as a youngster, it would have been nice to see whether he could have been “the first Francois Hougaard”.
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