Edge of the abyss

Pat Lambie is fighting desperately to avoid becoming Springbok rugby’s latest forgotten man, writes RYAN VREDE.

Twenty-one minutes at Newlands in late September summed up all that is right and all that is wrong with Pat Lambie in a rugby context. Introduced off the wood against Australia, he blended the sublime with the ridiculous. A drop goal under extreme pressure in the 70th minute to give the Springboks the lead, then an irresistible break-and-score nine minutes later that served as a reminder of his appreciable gifts were the most prominent examples of the former. Three missed penalties, one that a good percentage of the watching crowd would have slotted, underlined why he has struggled to elicit anything more than a fleeting commitment from the Springbok coaches he’s played under.

Then he kicked a brilliant 55m penalty at Ellis Park a week later to sink the All Blacks and complicate any assessment.

I recall interviewing Lambie in Dublin in November 2012 just after the team to face Ireland had been named. Morné Steyn had had a torrid year and Lambie, who was starting at flyhalf, appeared to finally be getting his break. He was guarded when pressed on his ambitions, but acknowledged that he had been handed ‘a golden opportunity’. Indeed, coach Heyneke Meyer seemed more determined than ever to give the kid, so hyped in his rise through the Sharks’ ranks, a chance to finally establish himself.

Lambie acquitted himself well in the face of a stern examination, behind a weak pack and testing conditions, but just six months later he was on the outside looking in once more, with Steyn reinstated to the role on the back of a season marked by injuries and poor form for his French club, Stade Français. Steyn didn’t need a second invitation to give a reminder of his value to the Springboks and duly turned in some excellent performances in the Rugby Championship.

Lambie’s situation became more dire this season with the anointing of Handré Pollard as South African rugby’s next big thing. Lambie knows precisely how it feels to be in Pollard’s position. Remember, he was, effectively, the previous incarnation of Pollard as a 20-year-old – the darling of Durban and the king in waiting for the Springboks. Now he has been reduced to cameos off the bench, switching between flyhalf and fullback at Meyer’s discretion.

It is easy to sympathise with Lambie based on his professional backstory, one that is marked by gross mismanagement at Super Rugby and Test levels.   His coaches are culpable for not leading this particular horse to the water in a responsible manner. Indeed, they’ve often just submerged him in that water, testing his survival instinct. It is a testimony to Lambie’s talent and mettle that he is still in the Springbok set-up. Lesser players, nay, lesser men, would and have been too broken to cling on for as long as he has.

Lambie’s situation became more dire this season with the anointing of Handré Pollard as South African rugby’s next big thing

Lambie cannot be completely mitigated, though. In 36 Tests he has not yet produced one performance that embeds itself in one’s memory. The top Springboks all boast a number of them – performances so good you recall them instantaneously: Fourie du Preez against England in the pool match at the 2007 World Cup, Morné Steyn against the All Blacks in Durban in 2009, Beast Mtawarira’s demolition of Phil Vickery in the first Test against the British & Irish Lions at Kings Park, Frans Steyn’s Newlands showstopper against Australia in 2007 … you get the picture.

Perhaps time has revealed Lambie as no more than a very good player, not the rugby gods’ special delivery to Springbok rugby many, among them respected rugby pundits, thought he was?

Lambie has just turned 24. To make such an absolute conclusion on him at this point seems premature, even if it is 36 Tests into his career.

Lambie apologists would argue that those aforementioned players were all given extended runs in the side. They’d have a point. Lambie’s longest run of consecutive Test starts stands at six, back in 2011. Since then, he hasn’t started more than three matches in succession and since 24 November 2012 (the date of their victory over England at Twickenham) hasn’t started at all despite being fit for selection for the vast majority of squads selected between then and now. Furthermore, when he has been deployed off the bench since then, he has played no more than three times in the same position.

Lambie’s versatility gives him the inside lane to be on the plane to England for the 2015 World Cup, edging out Johan Goosen for the third flyhalf spot (Pollard and Steyn being the other two). It would be his second time at the game’s showpiece event, and his experience there (he started all the Springboks’ games in New Zealand in 2011) will make him a valuable squad member.

He could, of course, trump Pollard and Steyn before then with strong showings in 2015 and put himself in the box seat to start. Yet one senses that Meyer has made a determination on Lambie’s suitability in that role, and is unlikely to be derailed in his plan to turn Pollard into South Africa’s answer to Dan Carter.

Some argue that Lambie is already South African rugby’s forgotten man. I disagree. At present, he is still relevant in a Springbok context – his match-winning three-pointer at Ellis Park underlined that.

But that may all change in a year from now if, fed up with his lot, he announces his departure for France or Japan and disappears completely from the national consciousness. Only then can we start speaking about Lambie in the past tense. For now, his fight continues.

– This article first appeared in the November 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Ryan Vrede