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Francois hougaard wants to talk about rugby.
We don’t. We want to talk about his training (We’ve heard the Bulls coaches do things… differently), his tattoos (What do those numbers on his forearm mean?), his workout secrets (When does he work his upper body?), and how he relaxes when he’s not thinking about rugby (Turns out, that never happens). We want to know about the sportsman, but Hougaard is completely focused on his sport.
Until he sees the bike. Then, just for a moment, he stops talking about the new Super Rugby season and breaks into one of his trademark just-scored-under-the-posts-at-Loftus grins. As much as he’s a tunnel-visioned professional, he’s also a regular oke, with a scruffy haircut and an itch for the throttle of a Harley-Davidson. But there’s a major difference between him and any other coulda-been/never-was guy who sits on the coach instead of running onto the field on game day. He knows what he wants, and how he’s going to get it. “Look, I’m not the biggest guy,” he says. (He’s right: he’s not. He’s 179cm and 90kg.) “But I put everything I have into everything I do. I play every game as if it’s my last.”
Francois Hougaard is not exactly what you’d expect. He’s smaller than your average Bakkies/Spies Springbok monster. He plays for the straight-laced Bulls, yet he has more ’tats than an NBA basketball player. And despite a series of career-making heroics on the wing (remember his 2010 Super Rugby championship-winning try?), he’s now dead set on playing at scrumhalf instead. Hougaard has a proven, winning recipe for success. And, like the man himself, his plan will take you completely by surprise.
Don’t bother asking Hougaard for his workout programme. He doesn’t have one. His training is in line with the Bulls’ unique fitness philosophy, which is driven by the team’s strength and conditioning coach, Basil Carzis. “We train principles and movements, rather than just a couple of exercises put together into a couple of reps,” Carzis explains. “As his trainer, it all comes down to: can I make Francois move better? We want him to be a mechanically efficient athlete. We’re looking to marry the gracefulness and mobility of a gymnast with the ultimate strength of a strongman.”
As Hougaard jokes around at the Men’s Health photo shoot (sitting on the Harley, he’s like a naughty schoolboy with a new toy), he switches easily between cheeky kid and stone-cold professional. Offer him a snack from the on-set caterer’s picnic basket, and he sticks to water. “They say, ‘You are what you eat and I believe it. I don’t eat chocolate or sweets – it just feels like I’d be taking a step backwards. I can’t even remember the last time I ate fast food. Whenever I see good sportsmen eating junk food, I wonder how much better they’d be if they ate healthily.” In a heartbeat Hougaard goes from mugging for the camera to talking up the science of sports nutrition. “Everyone always warns you about carbs, but you have to remember that, at the right time, carbs actually help burn fat,” he says. “I eat three times a day, and in-between meals I eat small snacks to keep my energy levels up. It’s about feeling good, and I feel good when I’ve worked hard in the gym and eaten good food. If you look after your body, it’ll last much longer than if you smash it with alcohol and junk food all the time.”
Then he adds: “Your body is your temple.” He’s smiling… but you know he’s not joking.