Johannesburg - Pat Lambie’s spell in relative “exile” as a mere substitute for South Africa will almost certainly come to an end this week ... but a new slew of injuries means there is no guarantee he will take charge of the pivot position.
The one step under-fire Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer can take to begin earning back a pinch of public approval after Saturday’s fiasco at the hands of Argentina - his charges’ fourth Test defeat in a row - is answer the increasingly deafening call to restore the 24-year-old to his starting brew for next weekend’s critical opportunity in Buenos Aires to begin a claw-back by the national team.
Bok fans at Kings Park - at least those who bothered to pitch up in an alarmingly poor crowd of 27 447 - provided cheers more in irony than anything else when Meyer finally allowed the home-town hero onto the park in the 65th minute.
It just seemed notably too late for him to work some sort of miracle at flyhalf: by then the unexpected damage had already been done as the Boks trailed by a gaping 17 points.
When the final whistle mercifully sounded, they had at least clawed back five (Bryan Habana’s 78th-minute try) in the 37-25 reverse which consigned them to first-time basement status in the four-nation Castle Rugby Championship.
Frankly, Lambie thoroughly deserves a place in the starting XV for the speedy return Test against the Pumas ... and as the immediate dust settled on the Durban humbling it seemed to make great sense for that to be in his most familiar station of No 10.
Unfortunately the younger Handre Pollard had an error-riddled outing until his withdrawal with 15 minutes to go, and two undercooked restarts (among other gremlins) were probably the events that eventually triggered a loss of patience by the coach as he “yanked” him.
The Boks lacked proper direction and composure at both flyhalf and scrumhalf on Saturday – Ruan Pienaar returned to innocuous ways - and these were not inconsequential reasons for the wobbly that afflicted them in many other areas on the park.
Lambie’s game management and general tendency for calmness, aided by the fact that he now sports a not inconsiderable 43 caps for his country, just seems the right, immediate medicine for a Bok side presumably dented as a collective for confidence.
But then came Sunday’s official release from the battered Bok camp, indicating not only that captain Jean de Villiers has had a dispiriting, fresh setback with a broken jaw and Marcell Coetzee a knee injury also requiring several weeks to heal, but that fullback Willie le Roux has an ankle sprain and will miss the Argentinean rematch abroad.
Considering robust, versatile Frans Steyn is still on compassionate leave, Bok stocks at No 15 are thin and that could mean Lambie’s range of positional options sees him instead summoned to the last line of defence.
Jesse Kriel? Yes, the rare Bulls individual star of their otherwise disappointing 2015 Super Rugby season was a revelation at fullback in that competition, but if the 21-year-old novice is placed there in Buenos Aires, it would be his third different berth in three Test matches after his rather traumatic try-out at right wing on Saturday.
Instead it seems to make sense, with De Villiers now unlikely to see further service until at least game two of the World Cup against Samoa in Birmingham, to reunite Kriel with Damian de Allende in midfield - they were a bit of a revelation against Australia and New Zealand despite their rank inexperience as a combination.
If Lambie plays at fullback and Kriel centre, then Pollard may well earn a reprieve ... and perhaps that would be no bad thing.
For all his worrisome imperfections of late, perhaps people conveniently overlook that he is still only 21 himself - and that is a vulnerable age where a couple of jittery showings at Test level can easily multiply into a more prolonged virus.
It may take just one welcome, timely assured showing to set him back on the right path.
Amidst the predictable, yet understandable sea of public angst – no lack of hysteria and pure bile, too - that greeted the Bok embarrassment in Durban, there are still some voices of rugby reason out there.
One is veteran commentator and former Junior Springbok flyhalf Gavin Cowley, who anchored a media event here on Saturday to announce SuperSport’s coverage plans for RWC 2015.
For those who may not remember, gifted all-round sportsman Cowley was part of a booming era of really high-quality South African flyhalves in the 1970s, when Test opportunities were becoming increasingly rare as isolation took hold, and naturally remains an astute judge of the position.
“Pollard is still a frighteningly good rugby player,” he assured this writer in a breakfast conversation on Sunday. “He is the answer for us in the slot (going forward), and so is Patrick (Lambie).”
In a roundabout way, Cowley was probably also reminding that the sky hasn’t fallen in for Springbok rugby. Not quite, anyway.
But with the Boks in the presumably unique position of still lacking a Test victory - the so-called World XV result doesn’t count – during the international season leading into a World Cup, the Buenos Aires clash has assumed pretty immense proportions for purposes of restoring morale and arresting a south-leaning performance curve at an ominous time.
There will have to be changes in several berths, given the latest medical revelations, and exactly how Meyer shapes the XV will also depend on how ready certain recuperating stalwarts, it seems, look at training on Monday.
Their ranks reportedly include Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez and JP Pietersen, all of them leading lights of the glorious but now rather distant 2007 RWC cause.
I have a suspicion that an unusual, subconscious kind of complacency crept into the Bok psyche at Kings Park, considering that the Championship was already out of reach for them, and perhaps a self-preservation ethic also afflicted a few players given the close proximity to the World Cup.
If both characteristics were prevalent, boy, do they need to be banished in a hurry in Buenos Aires ...
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