Pat Lambie tells SARugbymag.co.za that he has put his health ahead of his dream to represent the Springboks at the 2019 World Cup. JON CARDINELLI reports.
Who could forget the moment that defined the 2010 Currie Cup final? The 20-year-old Sharks flyhalf took the ball flat, handed off Schalk Burger – the quintessential hardman of South African rugby – and scored a crucial try for his team. It was the stuff of rugby dreams.
I spotted Lambie at the Durban airport the day after the final. He’d been selected for the Bok squad ahead of the end-of-year tour to Europe and was on his way to a training camp. As we watched the bright-eyed youngster stride purposefully towards the departure gate, a colleague of mine remarked: ‘That kid is going to play a helluva lot of Tests for South Africa’.
Lambie went on to win another Currie Cup title with the Sharks – in 2013 – and lead the Durban-based side in Super Rugby. He made his Test debut on that 2010 tour to Europe and played a total of 56 Tests for the Boks over the next six years. Lambie also represented the Boks at two World Cups.
In 2016, Lambie, described by teammates and coaches alike as a natural leader, captained South Africa in the match against the Barbarians at Wembley. He announced a move to Racing 92 in France in 2017 and everybody – from the players to the national coach himself – felt it would be a matter of when rather than if he would don the green and gold jersey again.
Fast forward to the present. Lambie has been forced to retire from the game due to a series of concussion-related injuries. He will not travel with the Boks to a World Cup for a third successive time – as head coach Rassie Erasmus had hoped – and he will not add to his tally of caps.
At the age of 28, Lambie has been forced to hang up his boots. While he’s had to cope with many an injury setback over the past eight years, it’s only in the last three where he’s copped several serious head knocks.
Racing 92 confirmed the news regarding the player’s retirement on Saturday. Lambie subsequently told SARugbymag.co.za why he will not be joining the Boks in Japan later this year.
‘I am following the advice of two neurologists, one in South Africa and one in France, both of whom I have seen on a number of occasions,’ Lambie said.
‘Considering the number of concussions I have suffered, and above that, the amount of time it takes to shake off the symptoms afterwards, it is better to avoid the risk of further head injuries.
‘I have been dealing with symptoms from a head knock in April [in a match against Munster]. It has been almost nine months now. I am still experiencing symptoms.
‘We have tried rest, medication, neck treatment, jaw treatment, eye rehabilitation, multivitamins, and now I am to avoid any strenuous exercise and sports that require contact. Therefore, I am retiring from the game completely.’
It’s a sad end to Lambie’s rugby story. Given all the talk around head injuries in the game, and ultimately the drive to prevent premature retirements, one has to ask if this could have been avoided.
‘I have been looked after extremely well throughout my career,’ Lambie said in response to the question. ‘No teams or coaches have ever forced me to train or play with head injuries or symptoms.
‘I have been sent to all the different doctors and specialists, and done all the tests there are. So I don’t think it could have been any different for me.’
Lambie was set to join the Boks in Japan later this year. He told SARugbymag.co.za that he was gutted to be missing out on another opportunity to represent his country. On the other hand, he feels fortunate that his injuries aren’t more severe.
‘It is a really big decision and I have extremely mixed emotions about it. I am bitterly disappointed and sad because I still have some dreams on the rugby field, and I feel like some good playing days are ahead of me.
‘But on the other hand, I feel relieved to know that I will not be at risk of further, more serious head injuries.
‘It is the hand I have been dealt I guess, and the story I get to tell. Despite all the injuries, I can still look back on an almost 10-year career with many highlights and memories to hold close forever. I feel very lucky in that regard.’
Lambie confirmed that he had been in touch with Erasmus over a possible role with the Boks at the 2019 World Cup in Japan. The Boks have two good flyhalf options in Handré Pollard and Elton Jantjies, but could use a versatile player with Lambie’s experience, especially if Pollard or Jantjies break down before that tournament.
‘That was a goal of mine and one of my dreams. And yes, Rassie was in contact with me before this decision.
‘He was very supportive when he was made aware of my decision [to retire]. So many family members, friends, teammates and coaches have been extremely supportive of this decision. I am hugely grateful for that.’
Lambie will take some time to consider his future. He sustained a serious knee injury during the early stages of the 2018 Champions Cup final, and Racing 92 have agreed to help with the remainder of his rehabilitation. Eventually, the Lambie family will head back to South Africa.
‘I will remain in France over the next month or so. I have some admin and medical meetings to get through,’ he said. ‘Rehabilitating from the knee injury will give me a little bit of time to digest this decision and to see what opportunities there might be work-wise.
‘I have thought about the future. I am not sure about the coaching route, although I would love to give back to the game in some way. I do have other interests which I will be exploring over the coming months.’
I can’t put into words how grateful I am for the rugby journey I’ve had. There are so many people who have made it possible, and so many who have shown love and support. Thank you to you all! On to new adventures…
— Patrick Lambie (@PatLambie) January 19, 2019
Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images