Cape Town - The bye experienced by the Sharks in next weekend’s round of Currie Cup matches shapes up as hugely inconvenient for the already embattled Springbok cause.
The currently second-placed, Durban-based franchise are odd team out in the penultimate programme of league fixtures, kicking their heels with just one left for them to play against the Golden Lions in Johannesburg on September 30 - the night before the Boks entertain Australia in the battle for “sloppy seconds” in this year’s Castle Rugby Championship at Loftus.
Had the Lions v Sharks clash taken place this weekend, rather than the next, it would have represented a perfect follow-up opportunity for Pat Lambie to continue his comeback in the colours of the visitors.
Instead, if there is to be a chance that the experienced, direction-giving Bok utility back earns a hasty return to the international picture after his lengthy absence through serious concussion, it will now have to be based primarily on evidence from his second-half appearance for the Sharks against the woeful, rock-bottom EP Kings in a Durban quagmire on Saturday.
A follow-up start, rather than mere substitute appearance, in a tougher Currie Cup assignment would have been the perfect way to gauge his readiness to inject the tottering Bok cause and potentially given him the degree of confidence required to tackle the superior rigours of a Test so swiftly after a long layoff.
Lambie looked suitably assured - albeit understandably also just a little rusty on the virtual skating rink - in his limited contribution time-wise to the rout of the Kings.
If the beleaguered Boks are to at least consider him (as they almost certainly should?) for the Wallaby encounter in just under a fortnight, their management will doubtless wish to consult the Sharks rugby gurus and medical staff, and the player himself, to establish the suitability of Lambie being fast-tracked into green and gold.
It has, after all, been a delicate and at times worrying recovery period for the 25-year-old after his sickening collision with a flying CJ Stander’s hip in the first Test against Ireland at Newlands back in early June.
But boy, do the Boks need the proven, 51-capper... and very much in the flyhalf position he has made the majority of his Test appearances in.
After a generous run of six consecutive Tests in the No 10 jersey, Elton Jantjies’ particularly error-strewn showing in the 41-13 thumping at the hands of the All Blacks in Christchurch on Saturday suggested only one thing: he needs to be dropped.
The Lions pivot is 26, so a seasoned figure in first-class rugby, but he only continued to look more like a nervy 21-year-old at AMI Stadium, making a sequence of glaringly costly mistakes from his critical berth even as flashes of his known talent also came through.
Sorry, but I am rapidly ceasing to buy into the argument, predominantly out of Johannesburg and environs, that Jantjies shines for the Lions because he is “better coached” and they have “a more clear-cut game-plan”.
It is irrelevant. That is Super Rugby, the late-summer competition generally played in more favourable conditions for an all-out expansive approach. This is the Test arena, where even crusty All Blacks will remind you that the demands and pressures are quite different.
And Jantjies - though he is not the only one in the Bok set-up - is just not cutting it.
His body language worsens like the weather in an approaching cold front when things aren’t going his way and, for all his gutsiness at times in the tackle, he and Bok halfback partner Faf de Klerk aren’t equipped enough physically, at the end of the day, to be a lasting alliance at the highest tier of the game in channels renowned for heavy traffic.
There are plentiful issues in other areas, too, but flyhalf and scrumhalf have been departments of special frailty for the Boks in recent weeks. Salta, Brisbane, Christchurch... the pair have only withered progressively when they should be gradually blossoming.
There is no control, no calming sense, no game-management coming from either slot, and that is where someone like Lambie, with his sharp rugby brain and strategic wisdom, can ride to the much-needed rescue in at least one position.
Yes, he doesn’t significantly beef any quest for a more robust look to the “nine and ten” area for the Boks, but at least his defence is traditionally resolute and consistent despite his own relatively humble (1.77m, 85kg) tale of the tape.
It is whether Lambie, albeit a gritty customer, is mentally ready for Test rugby so soon that is a million-dollar issue in the lead-up to the Pretoria match, as the Boks attempt to snap a three-game losing streak...
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