Wed, 21 Aug 2019

TRIBUTE: Pat Lambie - The perfect squad guy

19 Jan 2019, 23:37 GMT+10

Cape Town - Sometimes sportspeople, their willingness so admirable but ultimately to their selfless detriment, are just too versatile to be appreciated to the maximum.

Pat Lambie, I would venture, falls pretty squarely into that category.

For generous tracts of his 56-cap Test career for the Springboks, he must have been an enormous source of comfort just for his positional flexibility within the squad: an attribute especially useful when injury impediments and other hazards suddenly hit hard, at short notice, and often a long way from home.

Modest, obliging, responsible, serene, softly (yet much of the time, it seemed) smiling ... add to those behaviourally-linked hallmarks the range of backline berths where you could be close to certain he'd do a competent job at very worst, and you were really looking at the model tourist, weren't you?

Lambie was a substitute 34 times - 60.71 percent for South Africa, but that didn't stop him from having some truly cracking starts in each of the demanding flyhalf and fullback positions, something that, gratifyingly, you could never take away from him.

You could almost as safely assume he would not let you down as a stop-gap inside centre.

There was even the odd, especially short-lived appearance on the wing, although - with great respect to the specialist fliers of the game - you always tended to associate Lambie more with the cerebral, strategic spots in a back division.

He was just that kind of player.

How cruel and ironic, then, that entirely justified, clearly mounting concerns about the volume and severity of head knocks he has suffered in his rugby career forced him to pull the plug on it at the age of 28, when he might instead - and perhaps with the benefit he wasn't enjoying of greater on-field continuity - be at his prime.

Those closest to him, in particular, are likely to be relieved, an emotion that will help wash down the doubtless widespread regret.

Not the biggest physical specimen (around 86kg, and 1.77m) ever to step onto a rugby field, in a game that has become increasingly collisional, Lambie has shown no lack of guts in absorbing his various blows, and then mustering as much fresh conviction as possible to bounce back, soldier on.

But his gap periods from the game also became noticeably bigger; made it ever more of a challenge for him to regain his optimum standards and strike up desirable new levels of continuity.

It is probably more for that reason than any other that Lambie, his closing professional chapter on the books of Racing 92, did not play for his country again since last appearance against Wales in Cardiff in November 2016.

Despite that length of inactivity in the green and gold, incumbent Bok coach Rassie Erasmus was frequently enough at pains to remind that Lambie was not ruled out of his plans for the 2019 World Cup, which would have been the player's third after contributions to both the 2011 and 2015 RWC causes.

Which right-minded coach would, after all, summarily dismiss Lambie's credentials?

I may not be alone in regretting that, if asked to pinpoint a handful of most vivid recollections of his rugby life, the first is almost unavoidably the gruesomeness of his knockout-inducing collision with Ireland's Southern Cape-born CJ Stander on that gloomy day at Newlands in June 2016, even if I am still firm in own mind that Stander's challenge was much more reckless and perhaps even unavoidable at high speed than it was malicious from a player with no track record of brutal misconduct. (He reportedly later apologised face to face and very fulsomely to Lambie.)

Still, it was the sort of incident adding in a particularly harmful manner to the former Sharks favourite's litany of concussions.

But not all Lambie "videos", mercifully, are medically-related nasties.

Perhaps the most memorable, rugby-orthodox one is his game-deciding, beyond-comfort-zone penalty kick against the All Blacks, hitherto on a run of 22 unbeaten fixtures, at Ellis Park in 2014.

He had only been on the park for quarter of an hour, having replaced Handre Pollard at pivot, when the Springboks, behind the halfway line, were awarded a tantalising, 78th-minute penalty.

His body language extraordinarily assured considering the magnitude of the kick, Lambie hit it straight as a knife and cleared the crossbar with plenty to spare, to the near-demented delight of the Johannesburg crowd as the Boks earned a famous 27-25 victory.

It was an example of the extent of inner strength lurking just beneath the baby face.

Again flying a little in the face of his public persona, he was also capable of being merciless assassin, a major breaker of rival-fan hearts.

A crystal-clear case in point was his virtual one-man show - as a raw 20-year-old at the time - for the Sharks in the 2010 Currie Cup final against Western Province at Kings Park.

In a beautifully rounded, utterly resourceful performance, Lambie notched 25 points of his own in an unexpectedly dominant 30-10 thrashing of the Cape foes, including two tries.

So was he, ultimately, a better No 10 or 15?

It is a question with no truly definitive answer, and that is really a tribute all of its own.

But he was the polished, seemingly ever-pleasant and plucky Patrick Jonathan Lambie and that, for purposes of rugby memory, was well good enough.

*Follow our chief writer: @RobHouwing

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