Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, FRANCOIS HOUGAARD talks about coming into his own in the UK, whether he still harbours Springbok ambitions, having last played in 2017 and serving truffles to Tiger Woods.
Sport24 asked: How have you enjoyed your time at the Warriors since 2016?
Francois Hougaard: I love it at Worcester Warriors and I’m pretty happy with my form of late (Hougaard won the Premiership’s Player of the Month for April). I was struggling a bit during the first part of the season, but as it progressed I started playing well. I’m approaching the tail-end of my career and I’m at the stage where I really want to enjoy what’s left and make the most of it. I want to play my rugby and enjoy it. I have become used to the people and the structures at the club and I want to be part of building a top six team and winning trophies. It’s a great challenge to be a part of and I look forward to next season. (Warriors have secured safety for next season and are in 10th position). I have enjoyed playing for Alan Solomons (who is the Warriors Director of Rugby) and I first played under him for the Kings against the British and Irish Lions in 2009. There is a mix of South Africans and guys from the UK in the coaching staff and they all work well together. I get along well with everyone and we have a good understanding in terms of how we want to play the game. The fact that there are excellent people at the club made the transition for me coming over from South Africa to the UK that much easier. Away from the four white lines, I live just outside Worcester and on my off day on Wednesday I travelled to London, which takes about two and a half hours by train.
Sport24 asked: Could you make a U-turn on your international retirement?
Francois Hougaard: I would definitely like to still play for Springboks and add to my 46 Test caps. (In 2018, Hougaard called time on his international career with immediate effect and played his last Test in the infamous 57-0 loss to the All Blacks in Albany in 2017). All respect and hats off to Faf de Klerk and Cobus Reinach who have been nominated for the RPA Players’ Player of the Year award. They have been playing really and deserve their nominations. I am really just focusing on myself and don’t care if people play us off against each other and say this guy or that guy must go to the World Cup. They are playing well at the moment and if they get picked that’s well done to them. If I am good enough and get selected it would be great because playing for South Africa is the most amazing privilege and winning a World Cup is the ultimate dream. I want to be there on merit and I spoke to Rassie Erasmus a while ago before the end-of-year tour to the UK… My highest high for the Springboks was making my debut against Italy in 2012. I came off the bench in the 32-10 win and it was a very special day for me. My try for the Springboks against the All Blacks, which won the IRPA Try of the Year award in 2014, was also a memorable moment for me. In terms of my lowest low, getting dropped from the Springboks in 2017 and finding out on Twitter that the coach (Allister Coetzee was at the helm of the Springboks at the time) said that I didn’t have the technical abilities to play Test rugby and by definition I wasn’t good enough, was tough to take. He should rather have spoken to me in person and given me a reason instead of embarrassing me on media platforms. If you drop me and tell me the reason that’s perfectly fine and I accept that. I have no problem when a coach doesn’t pick me but tells me why he didn’t face to face. That didn’t happen (at the Boks under Coetzee) but I decided to use it (the rejection) as a positive and worked even harder for Worcester.
Sport24 asked: What is your current assessment of the Springbok culture?
Francois Hougaard: I am close friends with Jesse Kriel and he has told me that there are some great things going on. The team feels like they have turned the page and they are all looking forward to their World Cup preparation. You can see by the way they play they are employing exciting rugby and there are some amazing players in the mix and the guys coming through are making their mark. In terms of the World Cup in Japan, I think it’s going to be really tight. Before Ireland lost in the Six Nations, I thought they were definitely the team to beat at the World Cup because they were such a well-balanced and structured side. But then again, England have come back stronger and Wales have been great. From a southern hemisphere perspective, we all know what the All Blacks can do. They are the defending champions and deserve respect but they are not robots – they’re human, just like us. From personal experience of the 2011 campaign, the World Cup gets really tight when you reach the backend of the group stages. I foresee it being a really good World Cup and I’m sure there will be some upsets. I believe the Boks need to beat the All Blacks in their opening pool game in order to lay down a marker. It would be great for the guys’ confidence and would have a positive effect on the team. As a player you want to test yourself against the best and don’t think there is anything better than beating the All Blacks. It would be a great start to a massive competition and it would forge genuine belief within the squad that they can beat one of, if not, the best rugby teams in the world.
Sport24 asked: Your take on Morné Steyn and Handré Pollard trading places?
Francois Hougaard: Morné is such a great player and, for me, it doesn’t matter how old he is. (At the age of 34, Steyn has signed a two-year contract to return to Pretoria). He has been great for Stade Francais and I have no doubt that he will perform well for the Bulls too. It is most probably where Morné wants to retire and hanging his boots up at the Bulls will be a full circle moment for him. In terms of Handré, he is a great player and has a bright future ahead of him. He has amazing talent and will play many Tests for South Africa. Since joining the Bulls in 2013, he has been a loyal player, but he obviously now needs a change in his life. He signed a massive deal with Montpellier and I am very happy for him. I respect him for how far he has come and wherever he goes, he will do really well… I definitely think the player drain has become a concern (there are now in excess of 400 South African rugby players plying their trade abroad). SA rugby is losing players too easily, but if you are a talented player and are not making the Springboks, why would you stay in South Africa if you could make three times what you earn, play in a great competition and see the rest of the world? In my view, you wouldn’t say no to that. I believe SA Rugby needs to put structures in place and change things so that the players want to stay. It’s a start that SANZAAR are making Super Rugby a strong competition like it used to be back in the day with the conference system set to fall away from 2021.
Sport24 asked: If the Crusaders played Saracens who would you tip to win?
Francois Hougaard: The nine-time champions of Super Rugby against the reigning Premiership and Champions Cup winners would be an unbelievable game. The Crusaders are champions and know how to win, but I would go for Saracens. Our opponents this Saturday also know what it takes to win games and championships and ending the season playing against the best in Europe is great. It’s crazy what Saracens have achieved and is inspiring to play for a club that competes in the same league as them. You want to test yourself against the best and it’s great that they are doing so well… One thing we, as a club, can learn from Saracens is to be more consistent in term of our performances. Why have shown the type of rugby that we can play, but we lack consistency in the way we perform. Going into next season, I our objective will be to work smarter rather than harder.
Sport24 asked: Tell us about your business interests outside of rugby...
Francois Hougaard: As rugby players, we get so many opportunities and are invited to different functions. Opportunities arise when you meet people and I have forged business partnerships. I am co-owner of Gold Street Clothing and when I’m done playing for Warriors, the plan is to move to America. Major League Rugby (which was inaugurated in 2018 and will comprise 12 teams in 2020) is getting bigger and better and the salary caps are going up. By 2021, I hear they may have a team based in Miami, which is where one of my businesses is located, so it makes sense. I love working with people, making new friends and doing business with them. So many sportsmen don’t seize their opportunities to make plans for life after sport. I’m feel pretty blessed and happy that I’m switched on from a business sense. I’m excited for life after rugby, and the business side of things will be fun.
Sport24 asked: Who would be three dream dinner guests and why?
Francois Hougaard: First of all, I would invite fellow South African Caster Semenya. No matter what some might think or say, she has shown them the true meaning of greatness. Caster deserves all the love and support. I would also have Tiger Woods on the list because he would be an amazing dinner guest. It would be great to talk about his comeback, the mindset he tapped into and how he got through everything and came back to win another Masters title. From an entertainment point of view, I would have American comedian Kevin Hart over. In terms of dinner menu, I would definitely not make the food and would hire a personal chef to prepare the dishes. I love food in general, so there would be a wide range of meals on offer – sushi and truffles are just two of my favourite types of food. As for the soundtrack, we would have house music and hip-hop playing in the background.