MIKE GREENAWAY, writing in SA Rugby magazine, says Patrick Lambie is the future of South African rugby.
In the midlands of KwaZulu-Natal, the mink and manure belt of the Garden Province, the favourite sport of Hilton College old boys is to ask their bitter rivals from Michaelhouse how many Springbok rugby players they have produced.
The Balgowan school has spawned war heroes (the flag flown at World War I’s bloody battle of Delville Wood is proudly displayed in one of the eating establishments), politicians, prestigious authors, captains of industry, national cricketers, swimmers and athletes … even Spud Milton (of the John van der Ruit books) went to the stately school modelled so closely on the posh English public schools, but so far the eight rugby fields on the sprawling estate have yet to produce a rugby Springbok.
Perhaps the most genuine indication that the school might at last break its unfortunate duck came in Patrick Lambie’s Grade 11 year. The flyhalf had missed his U16 season because of a serious injury and when he pitched up for training the next year, the flyhalf berth was already secured by the older Guy Cronjé, who was partnered at scrumhalf by his twin brother, Ross (both of whom have gone on to play for the Sharks).
So the coaches asked Pat if he wanted to try fullback. How did he react to changing positions after not having played rugby for a year? By the end of the season he was picked at fullback for SA Schools.
The following year, his matric year, he was in the SA Schools No 15 jersey once more. In fact, he also played KZN Schools rugby and cricket two years in a row, and that elite club can’t have too many members …
As Sharks captain Stefan Terblanche puts it, rather amusingly: ‘The next Michaelhouse old boy who asks me if Pat is going to be their first Springbok, I might have to shoot! But having said that, if he’s not their first Bok, then they will have to wait another 100 years …’
Towards the end of his first year out of school, Lambie made his debut for the Sharks – a 20-minute stint off the bench in a Currie Cup match – and was then drafted into the Super 14 training squad. Midway through the Sharks’ troubled Super 14 tour earlier this year he made his run-on debut.
Lambie took time out from the Sharks to play fullback for the SA U21 team in Argentina and was one of the stand-out performers at the international tournament, finishing up as the second highest points scorer.
He has been a fixture in the Sharks team ever since the Super 14 tour and the only debate around his continued inclusion has been where best to utilise his talent – fullback, centre or flyhalf.
And this, of course, has brought up the old chestnut of whether the Sharks are going to do a ‘Brent Russell’ and produce another ‘Jack of all trades and master of none’, as has allegedly been the story with Frans Steyn and Ruan Pienaar (although this was more the case at Springbok level).
The good news for South African rugby is that young Lambie is being carefully managed by the ever-cautious John Plumtree.
‘There has been good communication between all relevant parties from the word go and that is very important because wherever Patrick plays, he must be positive about it,’ the Sharks coach says. ‘He is still at the stage of his career where he is enjoying the experience simply of playing at this level. Moving from 15, which he knows well, to 12 and then to 10 has been good for him because it has exposed a few minor weaknesses in his game that he otherwise might not have known about. When the novelty wears off and he wants to settle into a position, we will talk about it.’
Interestingly, Lambie says an inspiration for him at school was Steyn and the impact he made first with the Sharks and then with the Springboks at fullback, flyhalf and centre.
‘I looked up to Frans because he gave us schoolboys hope that we could get a break sooner rather than later and excel at the highest level,’ Lambie says.
The softly-spoken youngster conducts himself in interviews with unfailing politeness and good manners. He is as humble and charming a young man as you could possibly chance to meet. But what are his thoughts on the position he would most like to play?
‘I’ve enjoyed 15, 12 and 10 and I don’t yet know which one I’m best at or which one I enjoy the most. But with a bit more time and experience I’ll be able to decide on a position, put my mind to it and stay there,’ he says.‘At fullback I have always enjoyed taking the high ball – even though I’m not the tallest, I like that bit of pressure – and then also the space you have at the back to read the game.
‘At flyhalf, I like being close to the ball and getting my hands on it as much as possible, as well as being able to make decisions and link with the players around me. The same goes for 12, which also has the added attraction of being a major avenue of attack for the opposition, and I’m happy with that because I enjoy tackling.’
The impressive thing about Lambie’s progression from 15 to 12 and then to 10 is that he has got increasingly better the closer he has got to the ball. He was excellent at fullback and when he was moved to 12 questions were asked about the wisdom of the move, but he responded superbly there, and when he was moved to 10 he again met and then surpassed the challenge.
‘I have honestly enjoyed all three positions,’ he says, ‘and maybe it helped that I played 12 after fullback before moving to 10, but the most important thing is that I’ve played a sequence of games in each position. I haven’t played one game here, one game there, and then gone back to the previous position.’
An avid admirer of Lambie is former Springbok and Maritzburg College flyhalf Joel Stransky, and he feels that consultation with experts in the three positions Lambie has played will help make the decision on where he should ultimately settle.
‘First of all, I’d like to say that I’ve enjoyed watching Patrick play, and what has stood out for me is that old indication of how good a player is – the time he seems to have to make decisions that other players don’t,’ Stransky says. ‘He never gets flustered, he never panics. There’s no hint of alarm about his play. He has brilliant skills, a kicking game, tackles very well and, most importantly, he has a wonderful temperament.’
But Stransky suggests that Plumtree sits down with a fullback specialist such as André Joubert, a renowned centre like Dick Muir and a flyhalf of the calibre of Henry Honiball and ask them for an analysis of where Lambie’s skills set is best suited.
‘Sometimes where the player feels he should play and where he’s best suited are not the same,’ Stransky advises. ‘I’ve seen that with Frans Steyn. He wanted to play 10, then 15, but maybe 12 is his best position?’
But where does Stransky feel Lambie should play? ‘The more I think about it, the more I feel that a kid with his talent has to be as close to the ball as possible. I’d play him at flyhalf.’
And is Lambie ready to tour with the Springboks in November? Stransky certainly believes so but Plumtree would prefer the youngster’s Springbok debut to wait a while.
Stransky says: ‘Good enough is old enough. We have a major issue in this country at Springbok level right now and we need youngsters to come through fast and learn the ropes.’
Plumtree is not so sure: ‘Look, he’s unquestionably an international class player. He’s a natural, he’s a very calm young man with an old head on a young body. To be straightforward, he’s a bloody good kid, and is an absolute pleasure to have in your squad.
‘Personally, I don’t think it’s necessary for him to tour in November. A good Super Rugby campaign will grow his confidence, while this end-of-year tour might not be the happiest and I’d hate to see him take a knock. But if they decide to take half a dozen youngsters and he’s one of them, then good on him.’
The theme of Lambie being cool, calm and collected is a recurring one, going way back to his primary school days. His class teacher and sports coach at Clifton school in Durban, Barry Mezher, says he was a gifted sportsman and natural leader to whom his peers naturally gravitated.
‘It stood out for me that at such a young age here was a kid who always put the needs of his team-mates above his own, led by example and deflected attention and praise to others,’ Mezher says. ‘He was empathetic to his peers and could be innovative in finding ways to get the best out of them.’
Mezher adds that Lambie was also an exceptional cricketer: ‘He had the sweetest of timing as a batsman and as a bowler had the discipline and calmness to bowl line-and-length deliveries that irritated batsmen into submission with his accuracy.’
At Michaelhouse, his school masters soon picked up that the best asset of this brilliant sportsman – he was also a very good swimmer – was his temperament. He never got flustered and the bigger the occasion, the better he reacted to pressure.
Alan Redfern, Lambie’s housemaster, says that perhaps the best way to sum him up is to point out how his peers responded to him.
‘When he was announced as head boy he was the unanimous choice by pupils and staff and was given a spontaneous standing ovation, which is rare.’
At the conclusion of his matric year, Redfern says that Lambie had ‘set a new benchmark for the role of head prefect’.
He was involved positively in a number of cultural and social activities at the school. As well as being a chapel server and senior member of the school’s Christian Representative Council, he was the chairman of the Toastmasters Society and served on the school’s Student Representative Council.
Redfern says Lambie was always ‘quietly at the forefront’, avoiding the limelight where possible but when in it, conducting himself with humility.
The balance between sport and academics has continued after school. Lambie is currently in his second year of a BA degree through Unisa, specialising in environmental management. He says it involves his favourite subjects, geography and economics, and it could qualify him one day to be involved in a passion of his: animals and conservation.
In the meantime, Patrick Lambie is living his dream. It is not that long ago that he was one of the barefoot kids running around the Kings Park outer fields playing touch rugby while his parents braaied.
The Lambie family are true Sharks fans, always have been, going back to the early-80s when dad Ian was a stalwart for Berea Rovers and played a handful of games for Natal before a serious knee injury ended his career, while Pat’s grandfather, Nick Labuschagne (Caz Lambie’s dad) is a former president of the Natal Rugby Union and was intricately involved in the administration of the 1995 World Cup. He also played 50-odd games for Natal and five for England. So the game is very much in Pat’s genes.
‘The rugby background in our family helped me make the decision on whether to choose cricket or rugby as my career,’ he says. ‘It ended up being quite easy, really. I love cricket but rugby is my passion.’
– This article first appeared in the October issue of SA Rugby magazine. The November issue is on sale now.