When John Smit was Springbok rugby captain, I asked him for a character assessment of a young Patrick Lambie, freshly selected to the national team.
“He is the guy every father hopes will knock on the door to take out his daughter,” Smit beamed, perfectly encapsulating the personable, boy-next-door nature of Lambie, both off and on the field, of his recently ended rugby career.
At just 28, Lambie last week was forced to call time on his 10-year career after consulting a neurosurgeon in Paris, where he was latterly based at Racing 92, because of ongoing symptoms of concussion.
It confirmed a great deal about Lambie’s character when the Racing president, with fitting French flair, described him as “a genius, a gentleman... an angel,” in his tribute to a player that made a striking mark on the club in just over a year.
That emotional assessment of Lambie is telling because it is consistent with everything I have witnessed and heard about this remarkable young man since I first wrote about him in 2009, when he was cutting his professional rugby teeth at the Sharks.
In his second year out of school in 2010, Lambie was Man of the Match in the Currie Cup final against Western Province at Kings Park, scoring 25 points, including a memorable try which saw him precociously fend off Springbok legend Schalk Burger.
A star was born, and it prompted me to investigate Lambie’s rugby roots, at Michaelhouse, the historic school nestled in the bucolic midlands of KZN.
Lambie’s high school coach, Ryno Combrinck, immediately told me that he was going to sell his bakkie to go and watch his former protégé at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.
He was that confident that Lambie would be picked for the Boks, and before his 21st birthday. Combrinck was not alone in his belief in Lambie.
Stefan Terblanche, the Sharks captain at that time, told me: “I might have to shoot the next Michaelhouse old boy who asks me if Pat is going to be their first Bok... because if this talent doesn’t go all the way, they will have to wait another hundred years,” Terblanche said of a school that lost a number of its old boys in World War One, and has a war-torn Union Jack flag, rescued from Delville Wood, presiding over the dining hall.
Lambie indeed broke the school’s painful Springbok duck, and it is interesting to note that he was soon followed by two other members of his first team backline in Ross Cronjé and Ruan Combrinck, both of whom were capped at the Boks as Lions players.
Interestingly, when Lambie moved into the open ranks in his Grade 11 year, his path to his natural flyhalf position was blocked by Guy Cronjé, twin of Ross. So he switched to fullback, and in his new position, he was promptly selected for SA Schools that year.
Going back to Lambie’s breakthrough year in 2010, he was indeed capped for the Boks on the end-of-year tour, and then fulfilled his school coach’s prophecy when he was picked as the Boks’ starting fullback at the 2011 World Cup.
Lambie went on to play 56 Tests for his country, 34 of them as a substitute, and a sprinkling of those were at inside centre.
Unsurprisingly, it has been suggested that Lambie was a victim of “Brent Russell syndrome,” in that he was shipped around between 15, (occasionally) 12 and 10.
Without question his best position was flyhalf, because of a rugby brain that was never flustered, his calm communication, and his innate ability to bring out the best in the players around him.
However, when Lambie broke on to the Springbok scene in 2010, Morné Steyn was the incumbent No 10, and fairly so given he was the hero of the 2009 series triumph over the British and Irish Lions, and the flyhalf general during the Tri Nations championship win that same year.
But ultimately the fact that Lambie never went on to firmly nail down the Bok No 10 jersey was largely down to the injury curse that would eventually curtail his career.
I can’t put into words how grateful I am for the rugby journey I’ve had. There are so many people who have made it possible, and so many who have shown love and support. Thank you to you all! On to new adventures...— Patrick Lambie (@PatLambie) January 19, 2019
He was desperately unlucky. There was a torn bicep, crippled knee ligaments and, most unfortunately, the head knocks, the most infamous being the sickening CJ Stander collision in the 2016 Test between the Boks and Ireland at Newlands.
The truth is that Lambie has been playing catch-up with his health ever since.
And, sadly, there is the possibility that Lambie’s career will be remembered for what could have been instead of what he achieved in a remarkable career, the injuries notwithstanding.
That should not be the case.
He won two Currie Cup titles with the Sharks, played in two World Cups and featured in a Heineken Cup final with Racing.
Off the field, Lambie is a folk hero in KZN, his popularity transcending race, age and gender. On Sharks promo tours into townships, I saw hordes of fans that previously flocked to the black players mobbing Lambie.
At Sharks fun days, it was almost embarrassing to see men, women and children clambering over each other for a Lambie autograph.
On one occasion, the only way he could cope was to order the fans into a line, and then he obliged every single one of them, the consummate gentleman that he is.
What sets Lambie aside is that this genuineness was consistent on and off the field.
In a 10-year career, as far as I witnessed, Lambie never once showed dissent to a referee and barely gave away a penalty.
I don’t recall so much as a shake of the head.
It was this calmness in the heat of battle that elicited probably the best tribute I have heard to Lambie, and it came from the well read doctor, Jannie du Plessis.
The Sharks and Springbok prop likened Lambie to the Rudyard Kipling poem “If”, which speaks of “keeping one’s head when those around you are losing theirs”.
Perhaps fittingly, the video clip doing the rounds of Lambie’s career highlights shows Jannie and Bismarck du Plessis jubilantly celebrating the 55-metre penalty that sunk the All Blacks at Ellis Park in 2014.
Lambie also had his disappointments in the Springbok jersey. He was the starting flyhalf in the Boks’ infamous defeat to Japan, and spent the rest of the 2015 World Cup on the bench behind Handré Pollard – all of which he took in his stride.
Perhaps the best footnote to Lambie’s career comes from the man himself. In an interview with a Durban radio station, he was asked how he would like to be remembered as a rugby player.
He said: “I guess it is not so much the highlights on the field, but more the person I have been throughout my career. That would be more important to me than anything I have done on the field.”@MikeGreenaway67
Independent on Saturday