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Have Lambie on alert, Boks!

2015-10-18 21:11
Pat Lambie (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – Dual cause for uncertainty over unpredictable fullback Willie le Roux is likely to occupy much time in the minds of the Springbok management ahead of their World Cup semi-final against arch-rivals New Zealand at Twickenham next Saturday.

Not only did Le Roux have an unacceptably shaky outing in the narrow quarter-final triumph over Wales, but there is fresh speculation that he is carrying an ankle injury – a far from desirable situation given that rumours of a problem in that area have stalked him for much of the current season.

If he is being impeded in any way by the injury, then it would have done him no favours during his unconvincing display against the Welsh, marked by flashes of magic in an attacking capacity but also some defensive indecision, erratic pouching of high balls and his own part in some fruitless tactical kicking by the Boks at times.

He was the poorest Bok backline player in the quarter-final, on this and other critics’ performance cards, and if he is, indeed, battling to get into best possible stride due to an ankle issue, it makes him vulnerable against an All Black back three – the hat-trick hero Julian Savea, plus Nehe Milner-Skudder and Ben Smith – who got into scorching top gear as offensive factors in the rout of France a couple of hours after the Boks had squeezed home.

Less worrisome from a South African perspective, of course, are their own seasoned wings Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen, who are in fine all-round form of their own, despite not benefiting from anything the like the “total rugby” approach the New Zealanders joyously employ.

Certainly as far as pure experience (both are 2007 RWC winners) and competence on defence is concerned, they eclipse the All Black fliers and that is some cause for hope even if the collective task ahead looks so daunting against the defending champions, bidding to become first ever side to retain the Webb Ellis Cup.

But Le Roux is a rather misfiring link in the Bok back three right now, not something that will have gone unnoticed to Steve Hansen and company among the NZ brains trust.

For South Africa to suck the vibrant life out of the All Blacks through murderous physicality, intended forward domination and unyielding defence – like it or not, their best tickets to an upset under present circumstances – every link in the chain will need to be well-greased and that obviously includes the man in the vital No 15 jersey.

Nevertheless, it would be foolhardy to summarily say “let’s ditch Willie” simply because the long-time first choice in the position comes off one noticeably sub-standard game.

He is the sort of hard-to-read character who gives the Boks a much-needed element of mystery – they don’t exactly ooze it elsewhere, at least based on present game-plan – and in the past he has often troubled the All Blacks with his cheeky dinks, crafty footwork and unorthodox running lines.

The Boks may struggle to regularly knock over their greatest foes these days, but they run them desperately close often enough, and Le Roux has been a strong element in that phenomenon.

That said, his best against them tends to come on fast, fluid Highveld surfaces and he has not yet opposed them in European autumn conditions or the truly pressure-cooker environment of last-four stage in a World Cup.

But if coach Heyneke Meyer does decide Le Roux is not sharp or fit enough (or both) to start this monster clash, then some observers may well be disconcerted or at least bemused to have read in sectors of the Sunday press that Zane Kirchner is primed to replace him.

The now Irish-based Kirchner is certainly a “safe” choice, especially if the UK weather finally takes a proper turn for the worse by Saturday, but he offers immeasurably less for counter-attacking thrill factor than Le Roux.

Would it really be right for the Boks, who were admirably durable and patient but excessively one-dimensional against Wales – it nearly cost them very dearly – to retreat even further into conservatism?

A better choice, arguably, would be the versatile Pat Lambie reprising a past role in the last line of defence for the country: he has a sound kicking game as you would expect of a man who plies his trade at flyhalf a lot, and does not lack for bravery, urgency or positional alertness in the tackling department.

Lambie, who turned 25 on Saturday, started four matches at the 2011 World Cup at No 15 for the Boks, and mostly looked assured and even influential at times.

He just looks like a more “rounded” option than Kirchner, and likelier to have the world champions guessing.

But remember that Le Roux hasn’t been ousted yet, and it may not even happen ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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