Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – A fortnight out from the first Springbok Test
match of the season, it amounts to the perfect “trial” shootout: incumbent Pat
Lambie against resurgent Morne Steyn in a Super Rugby derby.
That is, if there is even anything left at stake as far as
national coach Heyneke Meyer is concerned when the Sharks and Bulls lock horns
at Kings Park on Saturday (19:10) ... some pundits cannot be blamed if they
assume a start for Steyn against Italy at the same venue on June 8 is already
well nigh assured, regardless of which of the two wows us all more in the
season’s first meeting between these particular foes.
But if Meyer can still be swayed toward retaining Lambie,
who played every game of the unbeaten three-match tour of the northern
hemisphere at the end of 2012, this is the Sharks youngster’s last, wonderfully
timely chance to put in a really influential performance against the player who
severely threatens his Bok presence at No 10.
Perhaps Lambie’s goose isn’t quite cooked, after all: he was
consistently solid in Ireland and Britain during the November exercise, with at
least one hallowed London newspaper lauding his “unflappable temperament” after
he comprehensively outplayed Toby Flood until his opposite number’s injury
shortly after the break in the 16-15 nail-biter against England at Twickenham
to end the tour.
If Meyer is going to
be on a big continuity crusade during the June window, all against moderate
foes, Lambie -- at 22, still a big future factor for his country -- may yet
cling to the pivot position: at the very least he seems assured of staying
strongly “thereabouts” even if he finds his versatile talents limited to the
bench against the Italians.
The one thing 20-cap Bok Lambie cannot be accused of is
failing to land his goals during what has been a mostly troubled, injury-jinxed
Super Rugby campaign for his franchise thus far: although Steyn and the Chiefs’
Gareth Anscombe remain locked at the top of the individual points-scoring list
with 163 each, the Sharks man is not that far behind with 139 points of his own
and also hasn’t missed much at the posts.
When Loftus favourite Steyn finally found himself
marginalised by South Africa last year, let’s not forget, his muted general
play was being castigated but to make matters worse his normally metronomic place-kicking
had also gone unusually up the Swanny as confidence drained progressively away
from the now 28-year-old.
The key difference this year has been the fact that not only
is Steyn back much closer to his best percentage rates off the tee, but his broader
game has blossomed anew to a dramatic extent.
His body language looks unrecognisable, frankly, when
measured against last year’s, and the spring to his step in 2013 has been a key
reason for the Bulls’ charge toward the top of the overall table and current SA
conference mastery as well.
Yes, Steyn is still prepared to bang the ball up regularly
into the heavens, but that is in no small measure because Bjorn Basson – surely
one of the best kick chasers on the planet? – is back at his wing post and regaining
own lustre after an injury layoff.
But the seasoned flyhalf has also mixed up his game to a far
greater degree in 2013, showing some smart stepping and deft distributive
skills and playing with a bit of a swagger that makes him so much less predictable
and robotic than a year before.
If he’s made the odd fumbling mistake, it has probably been
more because of over-keenness to pull strings at high tempo than anything else,
and that only further demonstrates his restored relish.
Instead, a sense of sterility in general play has been the
unfortunate preserve of Lambie in the latest edition of Super Rugby: he doesn’t
look especially comfortable in his own skin in terms of the need to truly
“boss” games, although the Sharks’ constant, largely enforced changes in
personnel around him have presumably hardly helped.
On that score, it is being whispered that fit-again veteran Butch
James may be fast-tracked, out of emergency necessity, to the inside centre
channel alongside him for the Bulls encounter, and that may be no bad thing –
James is a strong, sometimes unsubtle physical presence and his own vast
knowledge of flyhalf play and whispers of encouragement may transmit overdue
chutzpah into Lambie’s game.
Maybe it is, indeed, already too late for Lambie to claw
back enough ground to keep Steyn out of the first Bok starting XV of the year,
but if it is not, this is his last public chance to recapture his panache – the
Sharks are the only South African team to have a bye the week before the Test
programme kicks in, whereas Steyn has another chance to exhibit his skills
against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on June 1.
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