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Rugby | Springboks

Patrick Lambie © Gallo Images

A mature decision from a perfect pupil - Lambie



When you consider the injuries that truncated his career and forced him to announce his retirement at the relatively young age of 28, it might appear that Patrick Lambie did well to pick up 56 international caps.

After all, he first played for the Springboks in 2010 and his last appearance was on the end of year tour in 2016, a few months after he was knocked unconscious in a test match against Ireland. A tally of 56 games in what was effectively a six year international career seems a tidy sum if you consider the injuries that even before his clash with Irish forward CJ Stander had made untimely appearances and broken his career momentum.

But if you speak to the Sharks coaches, headed by John Plumtree, who were involved in mentoring Lambie through the earlier part of his career, they will tell you that even given those interruptions, Lambie might have played more of a role as the national flyhalf spearhead than he did.

His public reputation was largely built around his match-winning performance for the Sharks in the 2010 Currie Cup final against Western Province, but those in the Sharks dug-out, the men who had observed him and worked with him in training, felt he could have been backed as a Bok starting flyhalf more often than he was in the years where he was fully fit.

“It’s one of those things I suppose, your level of trust in a player often depends on how closely you have worked with him and observed him, and on how often he does the business for the team you are coaching,” says Grant Bashford, who was the Sharks backline coach from the start of Lambie’s career until 2013.

PAT WOULD HAVE PLAYED A LOT MORE

“If John Plumtree was the Bok coach, I am sure Pat would have played a lot more as the Bok starting flyhalf, and I reckon he would have done well and be remembered as a match-winner. But for most of his career Heyneke Meyer was the Bok coach, and they played a different kind of game to what Pat was used to. It is understandable that Heyneke backed Morne Steyn, for instance, as they worked a lot together and they’d won trophies together. Heyneke would have had the same kind of trust in Morne that we had in Pat.

“But from a Sharks perspective we all had a massive regard for Pat and what he could do. From the time he was introduced to us when he was just a year out of school we knew he was a special player. I don’t think it matters who you speak to, you will find that all the impressions of Pat are positive ones. He was a hard worker, a thoughtful player, his mind was right and he was mature for one so young. You could say he was the perfect pupil.”

There’s that word that best sums up the young Lambie - mature. My own first interaction with Lambie was in 2010 when he thanked me for something I said during a speech delivered at a fund-raising dinner at a Durban golf club.

Asked if Lambie, who was in the audience and had then only just made his Sharks debut, would go on to become a Springbok in later life, my response was that “He can be a Bok now”.

That wasn’t to say he should be backed for a starting place in the Bok test team, but that he could be blooded during the end of year tour that the national team was about to embark (this was before his brilliant Currie Cup final performance).

Ironically, the young player the Bok coach of the time, Pieter de Villiers, had previously backed for a learning experience was Earl Rose. A prodigious young talent, Rose might well have gone on to become the great international player De Villiers expected him to be had he possessed Lambie’s cool head and maturity. Alas, De Villiers was later to forced to concede that maybe Rose was pushed when he was too young.

NOT PUSHED TOO YOUNG AND ANNOUNCING HIMSELF

Lambie wasn’t pushed too young, and after announcing himself by brushing off Schalk Burger in that 2010 Currie Cup final, he went on to make his international debut in the wet weather test against Ireland in Dublin that started the November tour. He came on as a replacement late in the game and kicked a conversion, but there were many who felt that Meyer erred when a few weeks later he delayed Lambie's introduction onto the starting field when the Boks fluffed their lines en route to an unexpected loss to Scotland in Edinburgh. It was a game where the Boks could have done with Lambie’s creative approach but alas when he came on it was too late.

It might have seemed ambitious to expect a player who had just completed his first full year of provincial rugby to win a tight international game, but Bashford believes Lambie could have done it had he been entrusted with the responsibility.

“The normal thing when a young guy is selected when he is effectively still a teenager is that you don’t question his ability rugby wise but you do wonder whether he is ready for it mentally. I remember Pat brushing off Schalk in that 2010 final. I had told him beforehand that Western Province would expect him to just be a link. He went out and exceeded expectations. Although young he was definitely ready for the big occasion.”

Lambie vindicated that view when he played in the Bok starting team when it mattered in the World Cup that followed just a few months later (2011). He started at fullback in the Bok team that was blown out of the competition in the Wellington quarterfinal by a combination of Bryce Lawrence’s freakish refereeing and David Pocock’s ball slowing ability, but it wasn’t Lambie’s fault. The Michaelhouse Old Boy produced a typically mature display in an unbelievably tense game and on a different day, with a different referee, he might have been credited with the try that made all the difference. Alas, Lawrence ruled that Jean de Villier’s final would-be try-scoring pass to Lambie was forward!

There might be some who’d say that sums up the Lambie career - he was unlucky in the sense that the breaks didn’t always go his way. Certainly the injuries robbed us of the chance of seeing Lambie in his prime, and his loss was as big for the Boks (Allister Coetzee was going to back him as his regular starting flyhalf before the Cape Town concussion) as it was for the Sharks coaches that came after Plumtree departed in 2013.

WITHOUT LAMBIE, SHARKS PLAYED A DIFFERENT GAME

Jake White, in his year as director of rugby at the Sharks (2014) expected a lot from Lambie when he arrived and was going to build his team’s attack around his creative abilities. But alas, Lambie was injured early in the season and good player though he was, Frans Steyn, who moved to No 10 in Lambie’s place, was probably better suited to the other positions he played than he was to flyhalf. Without Lambie, the Sharks were forced to play a different game. Had Lambie been present, White’s stint at the Sharks might be remembered with greater fondness - perhaps even a Super Rugby trophy.

In 2015 and 2016 it was a similar story when Gary Gold was the coach, with Lambie seeing limited game-time because of injuries, while 2017 was the year when the concussions first started to introduce genuine concerns about his longevity in the sport. Those who were concerned about Lambie’s health were surprised when the announcement was made that he’d play in France - a stint in the less intense Japanese environment seemed a better idea - but when he did play for Racing 92 he did well.

When current Bok coach and national director of rugby Rassie Erasmus first returned from his stint in Ireland he spoke seriously of including Lambie in his plans. Alas, the injury bogey intervened again and the decision this past weekend to put his health first, though regrettable to those of us who enjoyed watching Lambie play and who expected such big things of him, was in keeping with what we know about him - a mature human being made a mature decision.



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