Pat Lambie must return to the flyhalf berth for the Springboks’ end-of-year tour, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
It seems almost an age ago that Lambie started the new Test season in the No 10 jersey against Ireland in Cape Town.
Prior to that clash, there was a misguided sense of hope and excitement. Allister Coetzee had sent out all the right messages after his appointment in April, and there was an expectation that a new era would kick off with a positive result and an ambitious brand of rugby.
Ultimately, it all went south in a hurry. In fact, when Lambie was felled by a flying CJ Stander midway through the first half, it was somewhat of an omen of the troubles that the Boks have since endured.
Central to the Boks’ struggles this season has been the fact that they’ve lacked a decisive, confident general at flyhalf.
For all his flair and form displayed in Super Rugby, Elton Jantjies was unable to replicate this on the Test stage. Understandably, Coetzee continued to back the Lions star in the absence of Lambie, who suffered a serious concussion, but errors and poor decision-making continued to blight Jantjies's performances.
To be frank, it was a sign of desperation that Coetzee had to turn to Morné Steyn to start the final two Tests of the Rugby Championship. Yet, it’s also extremely revealing that the 32-year-old has now been omitted from the end-of-year tour squad.
With Steyn at flyhalf, Lambie featured at fullback against the Wallabies and All Blacks, but he did look rusty after three months out of action.
Yet, the Boks will now head off on their tour to Europe with no real clarity over who should be starting at flyhalf. For Tests in challenging northern hemisphere conditions, where game management is so key to a visiting team’s success, there is no position more important.
Ultimately, Coetzee must start picking players in their best positions. There has to be a specialist fullback, and in this regard Willie le Roux should reclaim the No 15 jersey from Lambie. Similarly, the latter must be entrusted with the No 10 jersey again.
Lambie will be better for the game time he received at the end of the Rugby Championship, and the opening encounter against the Barbarians will provide another opportunity for him to re-establish some rhythm at flyhalf.
He then simply has to be backed to start against England in the crunch clash at Twickenham the week after. Crucially, Lambie started at flyhalf in the Boks’ last two wins against England at that venue, in 2012 and 2014, and that experience cannot be underestimated.
The Boks are under immense pressure. As it stands, two defeats on the end-of-year tour would see Coetzee’s side finish the year with a win percentage of less than 50%.
This is not the time to throw Jantjies back into the cauldron. Nor would it be fair to expect Johan Goosen to now make a return to flyhalf, where he hasn’t played at all for the Boks this season.
At this time of turmoil, the Boks need direction and clear decision-making in key positions. Lambie can provide that at flyhalf.
In the midfield, Coetzee should also finally return to the one centre pairing that has some experience as a combination, but that for some reason has not been selected this year: Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel.
Out wide, an injury to Francois Hougaard will thankfully force Coetzee to select specialist wingers, and in this regard, the experienced JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana should be backed to at least start against England.
At the end of the day, winning is all that will matter on this end-of-year tour, and a no-frills-no-fuss flyhalf such as Lambie will provide the best bet of achieving just that.
Photo: Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix