Bulls still tripping over Francois Hougaard's laces
Pretoria's Blue Bulls will have to move with the times, even if it means disposing of a few prime assets.
Rugby is a team game, but in its highest echelons it depends upon the mental and physical commitment of the individual. When a player begins to doubt himself there is very little the team can do about it.
Take the case of Springbok and Bulls scrumhalf Francois Hougaard.
In 2010 and 2011 Hougaard was the most dynamic player in the country, albeit one who was forced to spend a lot of time on the bench for both province and country. Back then he was able to change the shape of a game with a moment of individual brilliance, sidestepping, breaking tackles, and generally doing all the kinds of unexpected things that give coaches grey hair.
For the last two seasons, however, there has been a steady decline in Hougaard's play, and on Saturday at Kings Park he was a pale shadow of the firecracker of the turn of the decade. The moment that summed up his night was the dreadful pass from his own lineout that gifted a try to his opposite number, Cobus Reinach.
What has gone wrong? There are many possibilities. Some players become gun-shy. Percy Montgomery, for instance, was still playing Test rugby to a high level in his 35th year, but not long afterwards he simply lost his mojo and disappeared from the game.
Some players lose the pace that set them apart. Typically it happens around the age of 30, although injuries can bring the moment forward by several seasons. David Campese was the player of the tournament at the 1991 World Cup, but the majority of South Africans will remember him as the leaden-footed defender that Pieter Hendricks ran around, to score in the opening game of the 1995 tournament.
Hougaard and the Pistorius case
Some players simply get found out: can't kick with his other foot, can't pass off his left hand, doesn't like the high ball, can't turn and get back into the defensive line, scared, neurotic, the list goes on.
Hougaard has certainly been found out in one aspect; he does not have the technique required of an international scrumhalf. In some ways it is not his fault. He has been asked at both provincial and Test level to replicate the methods of his predecessor, Fourie du Preez. Time has taught us that is never going to happen and Du Preez's brief foray back into the limelight of Springbok rugby last year revealed what had been missing.
It has been unkindly suggested that Hougaard's proximity to the Oscar Pistorius case has also had an effect. That may or may not be so, but perhaps more germane is the fact that he is playing in a Bulls team that has lost its way. Victor Matfield's appearance on Saturday was a link to a glorious past, but what it really did was to emphasise an inglorious present.
The thing about the Bulls in their pomp, between, say, 2007 and 2010, was that opponents knew exactly what game the blue machine would play. They also knew there wasn't a damn thing they could do to stop it.
The time has come, though, when someone at Fortress Loftus has to accept that the horse is dead and no amount of flogging it will get it back on its feet.
Fostering a family vision
According to the South African Rugby Union's statistics for the game in Durban, Akona Ndungane, JJ Engelbrecht and Bjorn Basson, Springbok outside backs all ran a combined 28m with ball in hand during the course of the match.
It is a moot point whether the current squad has the ability to play a new pattern, even if coach Frans Ludeke had the courage to demand one. A franchise famed for fostering a family vision may have to accept that it is time for a change, even if that means disposing of a few prime assets.
The fact that people can change was highlighted in the other game last Saturday, when seven perfect kicks from Lions flyhalf Marnitz Boshoff beat the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein. Boshoff (25) is from Nelspruit, but honed his game with Tukkies. He was a production-line Bulls flyhalf, capable of kicking a game to death, but not a lot else.
The Bulls released Boshoff at the end of 2011 and he spent a season with Griquas before joining the Lions last year. Out of the blue there was a palpable change in his play. Helped by being pushed to fullback, Boshoff discovered a love of the wide-open spaces and began joining the line at pace as though he had been doing it all his life.
Instead of the dour Blue Bull template, under Johan Ackermann's watchful eye Boshoff was transformed into a first-class rugby player, safe as houses under the high ball and capable of telling kick returns with ball in hand, while yet maintaining an exceptional kicking game.
Too soon to panic
Boshoff is nine months younger than Hougaard and has found himself over the same period of time that the Bulls scrumhalf has gone missing. It is not inconceivable that Boshoff will become a Springbok this year, whereas Hougaard may have to prepare himself for a period in the wilderness. Unless, of course, he drags himself up by his bootstraps and reminds us why he earned national selection in the first place.
He has an opportunity to do so on Friday night when the Bulls travel to Bloemfontein to play the Chee-tahs. It's too soon to panic for the latter franchise, and, remember, they lost their opening game against the Sharks last year before cutting a swath through Australia and New Zealand on their way to the playoffs. Nevertheless, they must make home advantage tell rather better than they managed last week.
The Lions travel to Cape Town as the Stormers make their debut in this year's tournament. After beating the Cheetahs they must feel they have a chance and will be buoyed by the fact that the Stormers lost their last pre-season warm-up match against Boland. It is stretching credulity a little to suggest another upset, but if the Stormers expect an easy game they are in for a storm.