True test looms for Lambie

JON CARDINELLI writes that Pat Lambie may have to steer the Sharks to Currie Cup glory if he’s going to convince Heyneke Meyer of his value as a match-winning flyhalf.

Did Lambie’s performance against Griquas mean anything? Of course it did. It was massive in the context of the Sharks’ season, as it helped the Durbanites bank a potential home final.

It was important in that it allowed Lambie a rare start, and even more significantly a rare start in his best position of flyhalf. But was it meaningful in the context of Lambie’s bid for the Bok flyhalf jersey? I don’t think so.

Lambie enjoyed a great return to the starting line-up last Friday. He was accurate in front of goal, he gave the Sharks direction both as a distributor and tactical kicker. He was solid on defence and innovative on attack. It was a complete performance, and it would have given him plenty of confidence.

But the pressure will mount this week ahead of a semi-final showdown against the Bulls. For all the bluster about Griquas being giant killers, they are never a threat at the back end of the season. They struggle because of injuries and battle to compete against the big five teams who are boosted by the returning Boks.

Griquas are never going to win the Currie Cup with their current game plan. There is too much emphasis on attack, and not enough on defence. This weakness was exploited all too easily by the Sharks last Friday. And yet, John Plumtree’s men would do well to remember that the defence of the better teams in the play-offs will be tougher to breach.

There will be more pressure on Lambie this Saturday. There will be more pressure from a defensive point of view. There will be more pressure on him to win the territorial battle, and there will also be more pressure on him to maintain his excellent goal-kicking form.

It has to be viewed as a great opportunity. If Lambie can excel under such pressure and steer the Sharks to victory, it would serve as a big statement. If he can go one step further and guide the Sharks to another Currie Cup title, well then it would be difficult for Heyneke Meyer to deny that he is the best flyhalf candidate for that November tour to Europe.

We have been in this situation before. Lambie helped the Sharks win the 2010 Currie Cup final, and one of the most enduring moments of that match was of the young flyhalf handing off WP captain Schalk Burger en route to the tryline. Unfortunately, he was used only as a substitute on the subsequent Bok tour. He did well when he started for the Boks at 10 against the All Blacks in 2011, but wasn’t used there again.

Meyer is still undecided about Lambie, and it isn’t hard to understand why. While it’s clear the kid has all the skills, he hasn’t really settled into one position.

Injury has also played a part in this unfortunate situation if you remember that Lambie was crocked in the 2012 Super Rugby competition just when he was starting to fire as a flyhalf. When he returned to fitness, the Sharks had settled on Freddie Michalak as their pivot and so Lambie filled in at fullback for the remainder of the season.

If the Sharks win this weekend and progress to the final, it will mean that Lambie will have three Currie Cup games in total to show Meyer what he can offer as a flyhalf. As I mentioned earlier, the fixture against Griquas was important for other reasons. The two play-off games will be massive in terms of pressure, with each of the four teams leaning on their Boks. If Lambie thrives in that environment, then it will say much for his mental aptitude as well as his physical ability.

Meyer will, of course, be watching the progress of other potential flyhalves closely.

MornĂ© Steyn was better against the Lions last Saturday, but will also need to show that he can perform in the matches that matter. Just as a title win for the Sharks will underline Lambie’s value, another domestic trophy for the Bulls will show that Steyn is not a spent force as a match-winner.

With Johan Goosen ruled out with injury, Elton Jantjies played much of that Test against the All Blacks at Soccer City. The Lions lost to the Bulls last week, but they will be hoping that the reinstatement of Jantjies at 10 gets them back to winning ways. Again, it’s a high pressure environment that could reveal whether Jantjies is in the right headspace to spearhead the Boks’ coming overseas campaign.

I still believe that in the absence of Goosen, Lambie is the only flyhalf in South Africa who has the necessary all-round skills needed to bring the Boks success in a more balanced game plan. But Lambie has to use this semi-final opportunity, and possibly an opportunity in the final as well, to make a believer out of Meyer.

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