Lambie’s fearless

JON CARDINELLI, writing in SA Rugby magazine, says South Africa’s great prodigy continues to exceed expectations.

Pat Lambie can’t miss. He kicks six out of six against the Melbourne Rebels, and calls kicking consultant Braam van Straaten after the Sharks’ victory. ‘Coach, I’m hitting the ball so sweetly, it feels like I can’t miss,’ he says. That rare combination of skill and composure is once again evident as he nails three out of three the very next week.

In October 2010, SA Rugby magazine hailed the arrival of a special talent. Lambie exhibited all the attributes of a match-winning flyhalf, although at the time of writing, he was yet to substantiate the speculation; he was yet to take control. That article was written about a promising teenager, and few could have predicted the accelerated metamorphosis he would undergo in the next five months.

Lambie has ascended; he has begun to spread his wings. He led the Sharks to a Currie Cup title with a dazzling all-round display against Western Province. The sharp tactical probes, the visionary distribution and, of course, the daring dart and fend on Schalk Burger that epitomised his audacity. That moment alone will go down in domestic history, but on a longer timeline, it will serve as a precursor to greater deeds.

It’s an unshakeable confidence that’s come to mark him more than his natural feel for the game. Lambie believes he can’t miss, and through his increasingly impressive feats, more and more people are beginning to share this confidence.

Van Straaten picked up on that defining quality in the build-up to the 2010 Currie Cup final. Tasked with refining Lambie’s kicking technique, Van Straaten was surprised by the youngster’s penchant for responsibility. Van Straaten and Lambie spent a total of five hours during that final week discussing technique and practising an array of kicks, and it formed the basis for what was to become a prosperous working relationship.

They linked up again during the Sharks’ pre-season, and Lambie remained ambitious. While firmly entrenched as the first-choice flyhalf, there was still much to prove. There were other factors that contributed to his erratic goal-kicking on the Springbok tour of the home nations, but it was clear that his technique was holding him back.

‘There were some fundamental flaws that needed correcting,’ says Van Straaten, a former Springbok flyhalf with a reputation for goal-kicking accuracy. ‘His body position was wrong and his last step towards the ball wasn’t quite right. It took quite a while to fix, but as we saw during the early stages of Super Rugby this year, that hard work has paid off.

‘For a developing player like Pat, you want him exposed to as much ball as possible. This applies to kicking as much as it does to other areas of his game. I’d noticed that the Sharks used Stefan Terblanche as their primary kicker when they kicked for touch, and so I spoke to the Sharks’ coaches and suggested that Pat take on that responsibility. The good habits he’d picked up after working on his goal-kicking were carried across to his kicking out of hand, and because he got a feel for kicking the ball to touch early in the game, he would have some rhythm before kicking for goal.’

The Sharks won four of their first five matches and Lambie boasted a goal-kicking average of 86%. The improvement in his tactical game was also evident, and if not for a finger fracture that sidelined him for three weeks, he may have continued to top the point-scoring table.

While the Sharks toured Australasia, Lambie stayed in close contact with Van Straaten. The latter continued to analyse Lambie’s kicking performances and mail him video clips and feedback. It was after the Sharks beat the Rebels 34-32 in Melbourne and Lambie kicked six out of six that Van Straaten received a phone call from his prodigy.

‘It was a proud moment for me as a coach,’ recalls Van Straaten. ‘We had changed his kicking style and he’d put in the work, and he had progressed to the point where he felt like he just couldn’t miss. And it wasn’t a case of arrogance or over-confidence. He was kicking like an absolute king.’

Lambie’s performances with the boot and with ball in hand have not gone unnoticed. There’s a healthy appreciation for the 20-year-old in Sharks country, while members of the Springbok management are keeping a close eye on his progress.

He already has four Test caps and was on the field when South Africa completed wins against Ireland, Wales and England last year. But whether he gained anything from that northern sojourn is a point of contention.

Before that touring squad was announced, Sharks coach John Plumtree said that it  wasn’t ‘necessary’ for Lambie to be involved. Having watched the four Tests and the questionable manner in which Lambie was managed, you’d have to agree that the youngster would have been better served continuing his development in a Sharks jumper. The Bok management introduced Lambie from the bench at odd times, and even the softest of critics would have viewed it as an example of a player being set up to fail. Morné Steyn was in great goal-kicking form, and yet coach Peter de Villiers decided to trade Steyn for Lambie at times when the game was still in the balance.

Lambie admitted that he would have liked a start, but tempered the talk of frustration by adding that the tour provided him with good exposure to the Bok systems. Sharks assistant coach Grant Bashford has been impressed with Lambie’s progress in Super Rugby, and suggests that the flyhalf took the whole Bok experience in his stride.

‘I’m not sure that he added anything to his game after touring with the Boks, but he certainly didn’t do himself a discredit,’ says Bashford. ‘A great deal of work has been done since his return, and he continues to impress everybody, not only with his skill, but also with his attitude.

‘We always felt he would end up at flyhalf, but fate certainly had a hand in his move to the position as early as last year. He came into the Super 14 side as a fullback because Adi Jacobs was out injured and we had to move Stefan Terblanche to outside centre. Then we moved Pat to No 12 in the Currie Cup and eventually to flyhalf when Steve Meyer suffered that big knee injury. Sometimes these things happen for the best.’

Butch James must start at No 10 for the Boks at this year’s World Cup, as he has the all-round game as well as the experience of having won the tournament in 2007. Lambie is the future of South African rugby, but history will show that experienced teams win World Cups.

There is still value in taking the 20-year-old to New Zealand and exposing him to a tournament of this magnitude. He’s handled everything the rugby world has thrown at him, and while it’s a travesty of justice that a starting opportunity didn’t come his way last November, Lambie’s shown a temperament that, like the rest of his skills set, is in another class.

‘Pat has so much time on the ball, he never gets rattled,’ says Bashford. ‘Sure, he’s got a great forward platform to play off, but he’s made the most of that possession.

‘He’s responded fantastically to the responsibility that’s been offered to him. He’s an old head on young shoulders, he makes the big calls and he’s asked for the responsibility to kick. He also has the respect of the younger and senior players. Everybody backs him to make the big decisions.’

And despite his perceived lack of size, he’s stood up to the physical intensity of top-flight rugby. Even in the matches where his forwards have been under pressure, as was the case in that loss to the Chiefs, he doesn’t shirk his defensive duties.

‘Pat’s not exactly small at 92kg,’ says Bashford. ‘His tackle efficiency [before he was sidelined for three weeks] is 93%, so he looks after that all-important flyhalf channel. It’s a channel every team targets nowadays, and Pat’s proved he can handle that pressure.’

The cynics have drawn parallels between Lambie and Frans Steyn, Ruan Pienaar and Brent Russell, but the fact that Lambie played fullback before flyhalf doesn’t mean that he’s doomed to a career as a utility. There was much debate about his best position in 2010, but the argument is now settled. Lambie is a flyhalf. End of story.

At a tender age, Lambie already offers more than Frans Steyn and Russell. Steyn never had the sharp decision-making skills required of a top-class 10, while Russell’s kicking game was a perpetual shortcoming. Pienaar had all the attributes but was never backed in the position, and at times struggled for confidence. It’s clear that Lambie has no such problem. Ask Van Straaten. Ask Bashford. Ask the kid himself. He can’t miss.

‘Pat’s already light years ahead of other players his age,’ says Van Straaten. ‘That kind of calmness under pressure usually comes with experience, but he’s already
there. He’s got all the time in the world, whether he’s running with the ball or kicking it. It’s a mark of the really good players.

‘He has time on his side, and I’d like to see him used in the Tri-Nations before the World Cup. Test rugby has more pressure and variables than Super Rugby. I’d like to see him entrusted with that responsibility, and I’d be surprised if he didn’t pass that test.’

– This article first appeared in the May issue of SA Rugby magazine. The June issue will be on sale from Wednesday, 18 May.
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