Pat Lambie has become an important part of the Springbok match 23, writes MARK KEOHANE.
Pat Lambie is an outstanding rugby player. He plays like he talks: with consideration, thought and understated passion. He is an asset to the Springboks.
The number he wears on his back has always overshadowed the player being talked about. When discussing him, we should be talking about Lambie, the rugby player.
Instead, the player suffered at provincial, regional and international levels because of the number believed to be his perfect design.
Former Springbok coach Peter de Villiers felt fullback was his best position and Lambie started at 15 in the 2011 World Cup quarter-final loss to Australia.
Former Sharks coach John Plumtree also liked Lambie at fullback, played him mostly at flyhalf but thought the player may ultimately settle at 12.
World Cup-winning Springbok coach and former Sharks director of rugby Jake White had an opinion of Lambie that changed the moment he started working with him in 2014. White, watching Lambie from a distance as coach of the Brumbies in 2013, felt the player lacked the X factor and that he was a player who wouldn’t lose you a game but was not necessarily a player who would win you one.
Bok coach Heyneke Meyer was another who didn’t think Lambie was imposing enough to be a Test player. Meyer, like White, has been forced to acknowledge a different view since coaching the player.
White underestimated Lambie’s competitiveness and strength of character. The image of a soft- spoken private schoolboy was dispelled when White ran him at flyhalf in a practice session.
‘The raw ingredients that every coach looks for in a 10 were there – he can vary his game, attack with the ball in hand and play the percentages,’ says White. ‘He’d never settled in a position in senior rugby. He’d announced himself in the Currie Cup final against Western Province playing flyhalf, but a year later he was playing fullback, then inside centre, then flyhalf. And then he was being spoken of because of his versatility and he found game time to be a problem.
‘Pat spent a lot of time in the national squad but didn’t get the minutes he needed to mature his game. He was comfortable on the ball, but he wasn’t comfortable running the show. It was this mindset we worked on the most.’
'He wasn’t comfortable running the show. It was this mindset we worked on the most’ – Jake White
White committed to Lambie as his starting No 10 for the Super Rugby season, with Frans Steyn’s experience, kicking game and defence used at No 12.
‘I felt Pat could lean heavily on Frans’s physical presence and his line-kicking. This would allow Pat to play flatter to the line on attack and to use Frans as a second flyhalf. Unfortunately, Pat tore his bicep against the Bulls early in the campaign and missed most of the tournament.’
White laments the injury because the Lambie-Steyn 10-12 combination could have translated into one of the most feared in the competition. It could also have given Bok coach Meyer another alternative when assessing combinations, especially at 10-12 and not just at halfback.
‘In South Africa we tend to look at who plays 9 when assessing who should play 10 and vice versa,’ says White. ‘But 9 is often more connected to the pack and many of the best international teams have prospered because of a 10-12 combination made up of two players who could specialise in either position, but whose skill level includes a natural line-kicking aspect.’
Meyer, in his first 18 months as Bok coach, spoke often of Lambie’s versatility but he also indicated a weakness in his line-kicking and tactical appreciation of how and when to use the boot.
White feels Lambie’s biggest hurdle was that he hadn’t been given the responsibility of a position and been coached in that position.
‘The one thing I found different when I was with the Brumbies was that I coached, more than I managed. In South Africa the coach often manages and is of the view that the player doesn’t need to be coached in how to play the position. But players always need to be coached.
‘I found coaching Pat inspiring because of his intellect and his passion. He just needed confidence and the only way to give a player confidence is to commit to playing him for a sustained period. The more he plays, the more decisive he becomes. Pat’s biggest challenge, as a flyhalf, is similar to every 10’s job – and that is game management. He has to set the game up and close it out.’
Meyer, in the latter part of 2014, used Lambie to close out games in the final 20 minutes against Australia and New Zealand. Lambie flourished, producing a magical cameo in Cape Town and converting a 79th-minute 55m penalty to beat the All Blacks.
There were moments on tour, especially against England, where Lambie looked world class at flyhalf, but the dominance in controlling a game didn’t translate to three imposing performances.
Meyer stated his pleasure at Lambie’s performance against England but little was said of the halfbacks in the Tests against Italy and Wales.
Handré Pollard, who started against the Wallabies at home, the All Blacks home and away, and Ireland, is still said to be Meyer’s first-choice No 10, with Lambie sandwiched between the youthfulness of Pollard and the experience of Morné Steyn.
Meyer justified his selection of Lambie ahead of Pollard by saying Lambie’s superior experience in northern hemisphere conditions was decisive to who played, but he stated Pollard wasn’t far off from being the best flyhalf in the world.
Pollard or Lambie or Steyn? Meyer wants all three in his World Cup squad.
And that’s the biggest gain Lambie has made in the past six months within the Springbok environment because there was a fear he would become the forgotten piece of the World Cup puzzle.
A year ago Lambie was a player seeking a Springbok identity. Meyer believes the player now has this, regardless of whether he wears 10, 12, 15 or 22 on his back.
The kid who speaks with elegance and plays with a similar elegance is no longer looking in on the Bok match 23. He is now considered integral to the success of that match 23.
– This article first appeared in the January-February issue of SA Rugby magazine