The Boks' unsung hero
Tom Hamilton at Twickenham
November 26, 2012
It was a kicking master-class from Patrick Lambie at Twickenham © PA Photos
While England are debating who the right man is to provide guidance to the rest of the team from fly-half, their opponents on Saturday have also been wracking their brains over the same conundrum.
England opted for Toby Flood against the Boks and he floundered in the wet. He missed two relatively straight forward kicks at the posts and whenever he tried kicking in behind the Boks' defence, it never quite came to fruition.
He took a bang to the head early on and while he played well against Australia the previous week, there are still some critics who deem him not to be the right man to start at No.10 for England. And then there's his replacement - Owen Farrell. His kicks at the posts on Saturday were successful and his passing was fine out of hand but he - and this includes his performances during the past Six Nations - has struggled to put the rest of the team on the front foot.
And then there are the other options still turning out in the Aviva Premiership. Gloucester's Nigel Davies is spearheading the calls for Freddie Burns to get the nod for England while Bath's Tom Heathcote's decision to play for Scotland this week was greeted by those with red-rose-tinted spectacles as 'another one that got away'. And England saw another such 'one that got away' playing for the Boks on Saturday.
Patrick Lambie was born in Durban but was eligible for England. His grandfather Nick Labuschagne played at hooker for Harlequins and won five caps for England between 1953 and 1955. But before this sounds like a criticism of the Rugby Football Union for not attempting to tie down Lambie, he was never really going to play for England.
His showing in the 2010 Currie Cup for the Sharks propelled him onto the world stage. He was turning out at fly-half on that day and scored two tries, three conversions and three penalties to help them to their 30-10 triumph over the Western Province - he was just 20 when he achieved this. But despite this immense showing, the Boks persisted with Morne Steyn at fly-half and although Lambie was included in the squad for the 2011 World Cup - their youngest player in the party - he was used largely at fullback. Prior to this, he had started just once for the Boks at No.10 and it could not have come in more difficult circumstances - away to the soon-to-be World Cup champions the All Blacks in Wellington back in July 2011.
However, he has now been given the keys to the fly-half shirt on their victorious tour of the northern hemisphere with Steyn out of the mix, Johan Goosen injured and Elton Jantjies still tentatively finding his feet in the international set-up. And Lambie has been the personification of consistency. He has nailed 11 points in each of the three games on their tour but has improved with each showing. He kicked three from six penalties in the first match against Ireland - with the missed shots on the end of his range - , kicked three from three against Scotland last week, but missed a conversion, and was 100% in all areas from the tee against England.
But what is most striking about Lambie is when you see him standing around in his pristine green and yellow blazer. His official height is 5'10" according the official statistics but this seems slightly generous and his suit jacket dwarfs him. While Flood is currently cultivating a superb moustache for 'Movember', it would take a gallon of miracle-gro for Lambie to achieve the same. He looks more youthful than his 22 years. And while one of the world's premier fly-halves has taken to Twitter to vent his frustration at the powers that be, Lambie is not on the social networking tool - instead he spends his spare time studying for the Environmental Management course he is currently taking.
It was the moment that launched Pat Lambie onto the world stage - the 2010 Currie Cup final © Getty Images
Post-match, he sat patiently - in the wrong seat - for the press to get themselves sorted with all manner of technology, he was keeping an eye on how one of the world's other standout young fly-half's Aaron Cruden was getting on against the Welsh. But when he was asked about the team's performance and their winning end to the tour, he seems to have slotted into the Springboks mindset seamlessly.
"In these last few Test matches we have defended nicely, put our bodies on the line and it's a sign of how much it means to everyone wearing the Springboks jersey and tonight it was no different," Lambie said. "This was a season-defining game for us - had we lost it, it would have gone down as an average-to-poor season, but now that we've won, it will go down as a really good season. It has been the first time in years that we have gone unbeaten on a northern hemisphere tour."
And he can look back on this tour with immense pride, especially his performance against England. His quietly spoken persona is a far cry from the figure he cuts on the pitch. He pulled the strings for the Boks and is clearly benefiting from playing alongside Ruan Pienaar in the half-backs - Pienaar handles the box kicks while Lambie persistently nudged back England with precise kicks to touch and in behind their defence. And he can also tackle - he was the Boks' third highest in that tally with 14.
Lambie said last week that he was not yet ready to nail his colours to the mast and label himself a fly-half rather than a fullback. But everything on Saturday, whether it be the way he managed the conditions with ball in hand or his accurate kicking from the tee in front of 81,000 supporters, points towards him being the Boks long-term answer to their fly-half conundrum. Goosen may have something to say about that, but Lambie flourished when others could have wilted on Saturday and for that reason alone, he should get the nod in the Boks' first Test next year.
The only shame is that we have to wait until when the new Super Rugby season kicks off to see him in action again, but here's hoping it is at fly-half and not further back.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.