Pat must play, Morné must rest

JON CARDINELLI writes the Currie Cup semi-finals showed why Pat Lambie is ready for the Springbok flyhalf responsibility, and why the other contenders are not.

Lambie went into the 2012 Test season with plenty to prove. New Bok coach Heyneke Meyer wasn’t convinced that he had what it took to hold down a starting position. The biggest concern was Lambie’s tactical kicking accuracy and game management. Meyer felt that Bulls fullback Zane Kirchner held the edge in this department.

It was also around this time that Meyer made it clear that Morné Steyn was his preferred flyhalf. According to the Bok coach, the team would need Steyn’s composure, as well his goal- and tactical-kicking precision if they hoped to win Tests consistently.

Over the course of the season, however, Steyn has failed to display the strengths that helped the Boks win the series against the British & Irish Lions as well as the Tri-Nations in 2009. Ironically, it’s been his lack of accuracy that has cost the team matches in 2012.

Following the disappointing draw to England in Port Elizabeth, Meyer admitted that Steyn would need to find form in the subsequent Super Rugby games if the Boks were to improve. They turned out to be prophetic words, as Steyn continued to struggle over the next few months, and this had a negative impact on both the Bulls and the Boks.

When Steyn was eventually axed, Meyer explained that the flyhalf had played virtually non-stop for three years, and so he required a mental break. But only a few weeks later, Steyn was asked to lift the Bulls out of the Currie Cup relegation zone and into the play-offs.

It was a task that Steyn responded to at first. He proved instrumental in the Bulls’ crucial win over the Lions, a result that propelled the Pretorians into a semi-final against the Sharks. However, it was in this latter game where his shortcomings, both physical and mental, were again exposed.

There are many who feel that Steyn will add value on the Boks’ end-of-year tour to Europe. I have to disagree.

It’s a difficult tour where conditions prescribe a tighter and more tactical approach. Steyn’s supporters will say that he fits the bill, but my argument is that Steyn is suited to this role only in theory.

If you look at where Steyn is mentally, and how he has consistently struggled to regain his once prolific kicking accuracy, how can you even consider taking him to Europe and asking him to win three Tests in a row?

Steyn was not solely to blame for Saturday’s loss to the Sharks, but it was because of his poor kicking and game management that the Bulls battled to get out of their own half.

He’s never been known as a dirty or ill-disciplined player, and yet, he finished this game with a swinging arm that connected the face of Sharks fullback Louis Ludik.

The Bulls were about to lose, to exit the Currie Cup, and Steyn reacted badly. It’s not too much of a stretch to judge this action as a response to his seemingly endless struggles of 2012. It’s very clear that he needs a mental break from rugby.

Lambie made a massive statement with his excellent goal-kicking performance at Kings Park, as well as a fine display of game management that played a big role in the Sharks’ overwhelming territorial advantage.

Looking at the performances of both flyhalves in Durban, you’d have to say that things couldn’t have gone better for Lambie in a Bok context. Lambie rose above the pressure, while Steyn succumbed to it. On the basis of that game, it’s clear which player you’d back to win the Boks’ Tests in Europe.

The flyhalf position has been a talking point ever since Johan Goosen went down with a season-ending injury at Soccer City. Goosen is the future at No 10, but it is Lambie who can provide the Boks with another strong option. And in the modern game where the schedule is relentless and serious injuries are a reality, you need two strong options.

The other semi-final in Johannesburg also highlighted why Lambie is the best available choice. Elton Jantjies may have already played for the Boks this season, but I’m not convinced that he has the temperament, nor the skill set at this stage of his career, to handle the ultimate responsibility.

Jantjies missed three early kicks at goal, and these misses were massive in the context of a rain-affected game. Indeed, if you compare Jantjies’ misses in Johannesburg with Lambie’s early penalties in Durban, you could say that Jantjies blew a similar chance to establish early momentum, to build a commanding lead and set up a convincing win.

The sight of Jantjies being flattened by the diminutive Gio Aplon will not inspire confidence. His lack of physicality has long been considered a shortcoming, as has his defence which was exposed in that Test against the All Blacks at Soccer City.

He’s a confidence player, and only takes the ball to the gain line when he receives it on the front foot. When his forwards aren’t enjoying that sort of momentum, he slides back into the pocket.

The obvious response to this statement is: which flyhalf doesn’t?

Of all the players who have played flyhalf in recent seasons, Lambie has stood out as a player who continues to take the initiative despite the failure of his forwards. The game I’m referring to is the 2011 Test against the All Blacks in New Zealand where he played one of his better games in a Bok jersey. He responds well to that sort of pressure.

Goosen is injured. Jantjies’s is a talent that has yet to be fully developed and refined. Steyn has lost confidence and form and can’t be expected to win games for South Africa in his current guise.

And then we have Lambie, who has led the Sharks to back-to-back wins with superb all-round displays. Lambie, who in all likelihood will lead the Sharks to another Currie Cup title in Durban this Saturday. Lambie, a match-winner.

Really, it’s not a difficult call to make.

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