Lambie return complicates issues
CAPE TOWN — The Sharks, struggling to keep up the pace in their quest for a Super Rugby playoff spot, have been boosted by the return to fitness of flyhalf Patrick Lambie.
A shoulder injury on a pre-season tour of France ruled the 25-year-old out of the first half of the campaign, but he is now fully recovered and has rather surprisingly been tipped to feature in this Saturday’s potential ‘do-or-die’ clash against the Hurricanes in Durban.
First Joe Pietersen and more recently Garth April have performed admirably in Lambie’s absence - the latter particularly impressive on the Sharks’ tour of New Zealand, but there is no doubt that Lambie’s pedigree and experience is something the Sharks are craving as they look for a way back into the tournament.
Lambie need not be rushed back into action as April has shown enough promise in recent weeks to avoid complete panic, but the sooner the 50-Test Springbok returns to his best, the better Gary Gold and the King’s Park faithful will feel about their chances.
Lambie’s return also means that he comes into the reckoning for a Springbok call-up ahead of the June Tests against Ireland.
And that is where things get interesting.
Since making his Test debut against Ireland in 2010, Lambie has only started 17 times for the Boks.
Of those, just 10 have been in the No 10 jersey.
That is a startling statistic for a man who has long been tipped as one of the brightest prospects in South African rugby.
Now in his seventh year as a Springbok, the last of those 10 starts at flyhalf came against Japan in that best-forgotten defeat in Brighton at last year’s Rugby World Cup.
The Boks were 22-19 ahead when Lambie was replaced by Handre Pollard, not that there’s any one player who emerged from that match with even a shred of dignity.
In his early days, there was debate as to whether Lambie was best suited to playing fullback or flyhalf, and perhaps that uncertainty has hurt his international career.
Now, though, there is a general acceptance at provincial, Super Rugby and Springbok level that Lambie is a flyhalf.
Former Bok coach Heyneke Meyer said as much, yet Lambie has always slotted in behind, first Morne Steyn, and then Handre Pollard in the Springbok pecking order.
It’s hard to fault Meyer for backing Steyn in his prime or Pollard as his star was rising, but the effect it has had on Lambie is unfortunate.
With Steyn’s skill-set now too dated to see him back in the green and gold and Pollard out for the year with a horror knee injury, Lambie is surely primed to finally be given an extended run in the Bok No 10 jersey.
But, once more, the path to the Boks is far from clear for the Sharks skipper.
While Pollard and Lambie have been out of action, Lions flyhalf Elton Jantjies has been going about his business in largely impressive fashion, guiding Johan Ackermann’s men to top spot in their Africa Conference 2 ahead of the Sharks.
He may have struggled in his side’s disastrous 50-17 loss at home to the Hurricanes on Saturday, but outside of that Jantjies has been the standout South African flyhalf in Super Rugby in 2016.
Capped just twice by the Boks in 2012, Jantjies was also one of the form flyhalves in 2015 and was considered unlucky to miss out on the World Cup squad.
There are many who consider Jantjies’ omission throughout 2015 — while an ageing Morne Steyn was backed — as one of numerous examples of South African rugby not succeeding in its responsibility to transform.
Should Jantjies be selected for the June Tests ahead of Lambie, though, there will be no doubts that it is a selection based on merit.
He has been the standout flyhalf this year and he is surely due another crack at international level, but what is already a difficult selection poser suddenly becomes even more complex for new Bok coach Allister Coetzee.
With transforming the national side Coetzee’s primary responsibility, can he really afford to pick Lambie, short on Super Rugby game time this season, ahead of a fit and in-form Jantjies?
The answer, understandably so, is probably ‘no’.
And while that means that Jantjies will likely get his chance, it also means that Lambie will slot in behind yet another Springbok flyhalf, set to make his 34th appearance as a substitute in his 51st Test.
Before even thinking about the Boks, Lambie must use what little time he has left before June to prove his worth in Super Rugby.
That might help explain why he is being rushed back for the Hurricanes. — Sport24