Meyer entrusts talented Lambie with crucial outhalf role
Despite a flight of wild geese proportions to more lucrative climes in Europe and Japan, along with an horrendous injury list, South Africa will still field a relatively settled and match-hardened side against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium this Saturday.
After a domestic season of transition, even the three changes made by Heyneke Meyer are largely injury-related, with the experienced JP Pietersen returning for the absent Bryan Habana on the wing and Juandré Kruger taking over at lock from Andries Bekker. But the key, if predictable selection, is that of Pat Lambie at outhalf.
Rather than return to Morné Steyn, Meyer has entrusted the talented 22-year-old with the goal-kicking and playmaking duties in place of the injured Johan Goosen in the only other change from the team that started in the Springboks’ last Test, against New Zealand in Soweto last month.
Steyn, untypically, lost his kicking radar during the championship in landing only 13 of his 20 kicks, though he still had the best ratio with the malaise also affecting Goosen, Ruan Pienaar, Frans Steyn and Elton Jantjies, leading to a combined haul of 23 out of 45.
Largely been employed as a replacement full-back this season, of Lambie’s 17 caps, only seven have been starts and only one of those has been at number ten, a pre-World Cup warm-up defeat in Wellington last year.
He has been picked largely on the basis of his form in the Currie Cup, when landing 11 of 13 kicks for the Sharks in the semi-final and final, as well as his game management, with Morné Steyn chosen as replacement back-up ahead of the twice-capped Jantjies.
“I want to see what Patrick can do because I’ve been impressed with his tactical kicking and I believe at this stage his goal-kicking is superb,” said Meyer. “In the Currie Cup he was excellent in wet conditions, which are similar to what we will encounter here.”
Amongst their many wounded are about half a dozen players who would most likely be first-choice starters, namely Bismarck du Plessis, Andries Bekker, Schalk Burger, Heinrich Brussouw, Frans Steyn and Habana, – and that’s not including Pierre Spies and Juan Smith. Then there’s the other players based abroad who have not been called up, such as Bakkies Botha at Toulon and the crop of Japanese-based Boks such as Fourie du Preez, Dannie Roussouw, Jaque Fourie and Winand Olivier.
All of which has obliged Meyer to introduce 12 Test debutants in the 38 players he has used their nine games to date this season. Yet Meyer’s starting XV still contains only four players with less than 10 caps.
The props, Tendai Mtawarira and Jannie du Plessis, have been ever-presents this season along with captain Jean de Villiers and Francois Hougaard.
Since replacing Bismarck du Plessis early on in the first Championship match at home to Argentina, Adriaan Strauss (who will most likely be starting against his cousin Richardt) has started their last five games.
Returning to Springbok duty, on the bench, for the first time since 2008 is the dynamic Saracens hooker Schalk Brits.
Their scrum has improved accordingly, as indeed has their pack, with the freakishly talented Eben Etzebeth augmenting the accuracy of their own line-out with his skills on the opposition throw. In the Currie Cup semi-finals a few weeks ago, it was simply ridiculous to see the way he was bullying older men.
The absence of Brossouw’s presence at the breakdown was compounded by the loss of the abrasive du Plessis, but the emergence of Francois Louw in the last three games of the championship has given a better balance to their back-row and pack play.
Behind this juggernaut, Ruan Pienaar (one of three players in the squad with experience of playing provincial rugby in Ireland) is expected to assume even more command.
The backline play has not been exceptional, and they will assuredly miss the cutting edge of the rejuvenated Habana, but if Lambie kicks his goals and plays assuredly, then South African’s chances of victory will increase accordingly.
“I’m excited to play against Ireland because I have special memories of making my test debut here two years ago,” said the slightly built Lambie.
“I’ve worked hard on my tactical kicking and when you’re in the mix with the Boks you spend a lot of time on those aspects of the game. But this year in particular I’ve improved and learnt a lot, especially tactically and when it’s on to play and when I should kick.”