Pat Lambie's return from injury is a timely boost for the Sharks and Springboks, but the lack of flyhalf depth in South African rugby should be a cause for concern, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
When word first got out that Elton Jantjies was set to undergo surgery for a wrist injury towards the end of March, the South African rugby fraternity quickly descended into a state of panic. Pat Lambie was still sidelined with injury at the time and Handré Pollard was out for the season. Suddenly, a worrying question came sharply into focus: Who would be next in line for the Springboks?
Looking across the South African Super Rugby sides, the Bulls have used Francois Brummer and Tian Schoeman at flyhalf, while the Cheetahs have deployed Fred Zeilinga and Niel Marais in that all-important position. At the Stormers, injuries to Rob du Preez and Kurt Coleman have resulted in rookie Jean-Luc du Plessis slotting in at 10. At the Kings, journeymen Louis Fouché and Elgar Watts have done duty at pivot.
With all due respect to these players, none can realistically be regarded as Test-quality flyhalves at this point. It’s also relatively slim pickings overseas, with Morné Steyn’s career surely winding down, while Johan Goosen has been predominantly playing at fullback.
It’s the reason why there was massive relief when Jantjies’ prognosis changed dramatically, with the Lions flyhalf mercifully managing to avoid surgery. As it is, for the first two and a half months of Super Rugby, Jantjies has been widely regarded as the man destined to wear the Springbok No 10 jersey in June.
There can be few quibbles there: his form, and that of the Lions, has been outstanding during the first half of the season. Jantjies has matured as an all-round player, and crucially, his vast array of skills have been complemented by composed goal-kicking.
But let’s not for a second overlook the importance of having healthy competition for the flyhalf berth. Before last year’s World Cup, Pollard was kept on his toes by the presence and performances of Lambie, who made a timely return to form and fitness against Argentina in Buenos Aires.
Many pundits believed he’d perhaps done enough to win back the No 10 jersey for the World Cup, and although Lambie did start the first game against Japan, Pollard then reassumed the frontline role for the remainder of the tournament.
Fast forward a few months, and after missing the first half of this season’s Super Rugby with a shoulder injury, Lambie made a seamless return to action against the Hurricanes on Saturday. Joe Pietersen and Garth April have performed well in his absence, but make no mistake, Lambie’s availability will considerably enhance the Sharks’ playoff prospects.
Similarly, his return will hopefully drive Jantjies to even greater heights. The Lions pivot produced his first really off-colour performance of the season against the Hurricanes recently, and while he also picked up a knee injury in that game, he should be available for this weekend’s clash against the Blues.
The Lions have three more games before the June international break, when the Springboks will take on Ireland, while the Sharks will play two more games before that incoming series. There can be no doubt Jantjies remains the front-runner to start at flyhalf for the Boks, but the importance of Lambie’s return should not be underestimated.
Not only will he have the opportunity to really stake his claim over the next couple of games and provide some much-needed competition for the No 10 jersey, but he will also provide experienced back-up if he is handed a role as a replacement against the Irish.
In New Zealand, the retirement of Dan Carter does seem to have played at least some part in stirring the competitive juices in Aaron Cruden, Lima Sopoaga and Beauden Barrett, who are all battling for that All Blacks No 10 jersey. Youngster Richie Mo’unga is quite possibly the heir in waiting.
South African rugby isn’t currently blessed with that same sort of depth at flyhalf, and it’s something that won’t have escaped the attention of new coach Allister Coetzee. But, at least in Jantjies and Lambie, the Boks now have two competitive players who could – even inadvertently – bring out the best in each other.
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