Rugby Championship

Why Lambie decision adds to depth

2017-09-13 16:32
Patrick Lambie (Gallo Images)
Johannesburg - It was the Paris based club that Johan Goosen last represented before the infamous fall-out that may have prematurely ended his career. Goosen was blooded for the Springboks by Heyneke Meyer in 2012 and joined what later became a quartet of young flyhalves – Lambie had made his debut two years earlier – who were expected to jostle to be the starting pivot in the current era.

His stint at Racing may have ended Goosen’s career but Racing could be the vehicle that Lambie uses to relaunch his. The Bok attitude to fielding overseas based players has rightly hardened and it won’t be easy for the former Michaelhouse pupil, particularly as there is a new wave of young flyhalves coming through. But that's the point - as he won't be standing in the way of young players at home, a Lambie career resurrection overseas could be a win-win situation for Bok coach Allister Coetzee.

To refresh memories about the history of the protracted battle among four flyhalves to establish themselves as the obvious frontline choice in the current era, we need to go back to 2012, when Goosen delivered a strong performance in his first run on test after Meyer had dropped the experienced Morne Steyn.

At the time Goosen was not long out of school, where he achieved almost demi-god status for his stupendous kicking feats. When he went to FNB Stadium the following week to face the All Blacks you could have taken poison that for him it was just the next step in what would be a long and celebrated international career.

But he was injured in that game and was replaced by Elton Jantjies in the second half. It wasn’t a good day for the Boks as they were badly beaten, with the New Zealanders taking control in the second half, but one positive was that another of the young flyhalves coming through and pressing to take over post-Steyn had been blooded. Jantjies was added to a trio of contenders that at that stage was made up of himself, Goosen and Lambie.

Neither Goosen nor Jantjies though played in the test matches on that year’s end of season tour to Ireland and the United Kingdom. With Pollard injured, the responsibility was passed on to Lambie. The Sharks kingpin played well on that tour and although Steyn regained form and was back as the No 10 in the home season, Lambie was again the starting choice for the end of year tour in 2013.

By that time Goosen, after opting to go overseas, had disappeared from view, though there were many who still considered him a possible World Cup option.

Yet Meyer was telling people in private that the man for the job at the 2015 World Cup in England might be a player who had yet to play any senior rugby. Handre Pollard was blooded the following year, 2014, straight after leading the Junior Boks at the Junior World Championship, and he was an immediate success.

As he boasted northern hemisphere experience, Lambie started the World Cup a year later as the starting flyhalf but after the shock defeat to Japan, Pollard took over. The instruction at the time appeared to be for the Bok pivot to always consider kicking as his first option – flank Schalk Burger actually spent much of that World Cup at first receiver – as the Boks reverted to the most conservative strategy imaginable.

That would have impacted on the public opinion of Pollard, who was playing away from his strengths, as again was the case earlier this year when he came back into the Bulls set-up after a long injury-enforced absence from the game and seemed to spend way too much time standing in the pocket rather than taking the ball flat.

Pollard spent the entire post-World Cup year out injured and Lambie most of it, and while there was a recall for Goosen, who was excelling for Racing in Europe, it was at fullback rather than flyhalf. In the meantime, Jantjies has been entrusted with the No 10 jersey, and while there was a step backwards for him in Perth last Saturday, he has generally been a steady presence in 2017.

So, at this halfway point in the four year cycle between World Cups, where are the Boks when it comes to establishing their flyhalf options for 2019, particularly in light of Lambie’s departure for Paris? Sadly, Goosen is off the scene. His announcement of a retirement from rugby when he fell out with Racing has turned out be exactly that, which is tragic because he was still a young man and had so much to offer.

Lambie, with 56 caps, can effectively relaunch his Bok career if he has an injury free run for once and excels for Racing. He is way above the stipulated minimum of 30 caps required for an overseas based player to still be eligible to play for South Africa. However, after starting out as the starting flyhalf in Coetzee’s first test in charge, the injuries have seen him fall well behind Jantjies and Pollard, who are both in New Zealand as part of the anticipated match 23 for the Albany test on Saturday.

Five years on from 2012 and the match where Goosen was given the opportunity to start a new era, there is also a new group of flyhalves coming through, and it includes players with special talent. Curwin Bosch, just two years out of school, won his first cap for the Boks as a replacement in the Port Elizabeth test against Argentina. He may not quite be ready yet to be the Bok frontline flyhalf, but he could be in 2019.

While there is a lot of fuss over Bosch, a player even more recently out of school could be an even better prospect. Damian Willemse, the 2016 SA Schools flyhalf, played a clutch of Super Rugby games for the Stormers at the end of that competition and has now been doing well for Western Province in the Currie Cup.

He is far more under the radar than Bosch but may have more to his allround game. He is a strong distributor, has length to his field kicking game, and is not afraid to engage defenders on the gain-line. He may well be the future at No 10, and that future could turn out to be sooner than we think.

Talking of gain-line, Robert du Preez, the son of the Sharks coach with the same name, improved a lot in the last Super Rugby season once he was encouraged by the Stormers coaches to take on opposing defences and be more direct. He may well be in Sharks clothing next year, which could mean Bosch moving to fullback, and that dynamic could well further add to the Bok options in more than one area going forward.

Of course, injuries could change the landscape completely, and let’s not forget that Pollard, Lambie and Du Preez were all out injured when the 2017 international season kicked off. And that’s why Lambie’s decision to continue his career in France should be welcomed by the Bok coach.

The likes of Bosch and Willemse are getting their chance to gain experience through Super Rugby, but if Lambie can have an uninterrupted run and find the form with Racing that Goosen did, his decision to go overseas will add to rather than subtract from a strong group of flyhalf options for 2019. You never know – when that event arrives, he may be needed.

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