The return of the prodigal son?
The score is Stormers 6, Bulls 12 with 15 minutes to go. The Newlands crowd is in a screaming frenzy in and effort to lift their team to a victory. A defensive line-out for the Stormers in their half. Tiaan Liebenberg steps up and throws it over the towering Bekker and straight into the hands of Bulls scrumhalf Francois Hougaard. Hougaard steams through the defense and dives over the line, a gleeful look on his face as his try effectively wraps up a famous win for the Bulls, crushing the hearts of the Newlands faithful.
This is not the first time Hougaard has broken Stormers hearts. His try in the 25th minute of the 2010 Super 14 Final in Soweto was a sucker-punch to the Stormers psyche, who would try in vain to overturn a 16pt deficit. The Bulls would go on to win 25-17.
So what makes this so difficult to swallow for a Stormers supporter? Not the fact that the Bulls won (as hard as that may have been), but it is the fact that Hougaard is a Cape boy. Hougaard was raised in Paarl and attended Paul Roos. He made his senior debut for the senior WP side at just 18 years of age. So how could the management of Western Province let this one slip through the cracks? The same question can be asked of Conrad Hoffman who has made his move up to the Sharks. And what about Charl McLeod? Whilst not born and raised in the Cape, he did move here and came through the junior ranks, playing mostly Vodacom Cup and had a couple of games for the seniors. Remember the name Paul Delport? He is now playing Sevens rugby but was also another promising prospect.
Why are these players falling through the cracks? In the professional era of sport, there are bound to be players that are lost. Every province will experience this. And especially in the Cape where there is an abundance of quality talent at schoolboy and Varsity level. The problem is, there is only one team and matchday 22. Not everyone will be able to succeed.
But if we count, that is four talented scrumhalves that have been lost. The main reason is game-time. For a WP and Stormers fan, it has been frustrating seeing Hougaard scoring winning tries against us, or Hoffman on the bench for Natal, when we are stuck with Ricky Januarie.
For years now Januarie has been only a shadow of his former self. He arrived in WP in 2008 and has not really done enough. He has been given opportunity after opportunity to prove himself, but his attitude and weight problems have let him down. His lack of fitness, poor service and erratic displays were quite apparent to every Stormer and opposition supporter. Is there any wonder that there would be big cheers at Newlands when he was replaced by Dewald Duwenage? To put it bluntly: he just did not warrant selection, and his constant presence in the side only meant he was keeping a talented youngster out. And with the loss of the players I've mentioned, this has quite clearly been the case.
It was good to see the depth in WP Rugby at scrumhalf when Louis Schreuder and Nic Groom finally got their deserved chance this past weekend against the Cheetahs. Schreuder shows potential and arrives at the breakdown quite quickly. I think he may need to harness his delivery of the ball as he often took an extra step, but although not the finished product, he showed what he is capable of. His replacement Nic Groom, who excelled for UCT in their Varisty Cup winning campaing, also impressed during his 20 minutes. He looked calm and composed, with crisp service from the base, enabling Grant to get the backline going. He also has a good boot, which was evidenced when he was under pressure to clear the ball from his 22.
Do you think the Stormers should bring back Hougaard?
I think both these players should be protected and nurtured.
Which brings me to the question: Do The Stormers Really Need Francois Hougaard? Firstly, he is a fantastic player with great versatility and vision. I think he'd be an asset to the Stormers, no question. If Rassie signed him I would not object. It could also be a good signing in that he could play wing. And seeing as though Hougaard is originally from the Cape, I'm sure there is a part of him that wants to come "home". But I think that WP should harness the talent that is already here. The Cape is brimming with talent. One can see this through the success of the WP Under-21 side last year, and the successes in the Varsity Cup through Maties and UCT. Credit to the Stormers this year for blooding in a lot of new talent with the likes of Rynhardt Elstadt, Johann Sadie, Danie Poolman, Gary van Aswegen, Frans Malherbe and Stephen Kitshoff to name a few. The key here is to keep and nurture that talent. Does the WP management really need to look outside the Province? For every player that is brought in, we are closing the door on a youngster waiting for his chance.
I understand this is the professional era and player movement across all levels is expected, but in the experienced Dewaldt Duwenage, and up-and-coming youngsters Schreuder and Groom, I think we are fine with in the scrumhalf department. For those questioning the "readiness" of the newbies for Super Rugby, lets use the Currie Cup to blood these guys in and get them settled. Do we really want to lose them, and other players in other positions?
Imagine Nic Groom or Louis Schreuder running in to score the winning try against WP at Newlands in a Sharks or Bulls shirt. It's not a nice vision, is it? Let's make sure it doesn't happen.