Dangers of position hopping

2010-08-07 00:00

PAT Lambie will be called many things during what promises to be a long, successful rugby career, but the versatile tag is one he will want to quickly shake.

The 19-year-old is still finding his way in top flight rugby, and he has already taken bold steps, but he has to settle on his positional home … and stay there.

Sharks rugby is littered with victims of their own versatility, those multi-talented players, the Brent Russells, who can play here and there, but too often end up in rugby oblivion.

Three current players of different generations can tell Lambie all about the dangers of being labelled a jack-of-all-trades as they have been shunted between positions to fill gaps and serve the team dynamic.

Frans Steyn, just 22 and in his early years as an international, Ruan Pienaar, in his prime at 26, and the 32-year-old John Smit, eyeing his pension, have all suffered as the numbers on their backs have changed.

Steyn first popped up as an 18-year-old flyhalf for the Sharks in 2006, but played at inside centre for the Springboks at the Rugby World Cup a year later. He also played internationals at fullback, flyhalf and wing in his short, confusing international career before setting off in hot pursuit of the euro.

Time, if not Bok coach Peter de Villiers, is on his side, but whether he should be at fullback or centre is still open to debate.

While Steyn, potentially, still has a long international career in his sights, Pienaar’s days as a Springbok have been allowed to dribble away.

Pienaar should have been the logical successor to scrumhalf Fourie du Preez, who is quitting South African rugby next year, but the Shark’s skills as a utility back have been exploited and his career has stalled.

His problems started after the 2007 World Cup when coach Jake White and his Wallaby sidekick Eddie Jones started talking up Pienaar as a flyhalf, “another Steve Larkham”, who should take over from Butch James.

Bok coach De Villiers agreed and tried to turn a reluctant Pienaar into a flyhalf. For a time, it seemed it might work and Pienaar had a strong game in the first Test against the British Lions in Durban last year.

But events then conspired against him. He struggled with his goalkicking in the second international at Loftus and was replaced by Morne Steyn, who first booted the Boks to a series win and then nailed down the flyhalf berth for the Tri-Nations.

Pienaar found himself in the shadows, marking time as the second-string flyhalf rather than playing, and enjoying, his rugby in his favoured scrumhalf position.

Coach John Plumtree and the Sharks accommodated him this year, moving him back to scrumhalf, but the damage had been done and Pienaar went the same way as Steyn, falling out with De Villiers and then opting for a lucrative club career on the overseas stage.

But perhaps the most unexpected victim of his own versatility is Springbok captain John Smit, who has played musical chairs in the front-row over the past two seasons as his career has suffered.

The change for Smit, at least initially, seemed a jolly good idea. He had led the Springboks to their 2007 World Cup triumph and was nearing the end of his long and distinguished career at hooker just as the physical, productive Bismarck du Plessis was setting sail. The Boks had a tighthead problem and a positional switch by Smit would extend his Test career, allow De Villiers to keep his captain and accommodate Du Plessis.

But it did not work. Smit battled manfully but largely unsuccessfully on the tighthead for both the Boks and the Sharks and, indeed, he now admits he feared for his safety in the toughest, most specialised position in world rugby.

Plumtree, with a sudden problem at loosehead during this year’s Super 14, finally found the answer. He switched Smit to looshead prop with Jannie du Plessis on the tighthead and the Sharks scrum settled as they lost only one of their last eight games.

Loosehead, it seemed, was Smit’s new position — until Bismarck du Plessis was injured and Smit returned to his old position at hooker for this year’s international season. In an attempt to fill the new role, he bulked up, adding between five and 10 kg to his already considerable frame.

Smit can certainly still do the job in the scrums and the line-outs as a hooker, but now weighing in at some 122 kg, he lacks the mobility and high workrate of the modern No 2.

Whether the Bok selectors would be prepared to shuffle again is doubtful, but if Smit is to continue (and lead the Boks to the World Cup) then loosehead is the position which, physically, now suits him best.

“He’s most comfortable at loosehead [rather than tighthead] and he scrums well,” Bok forward coach Gary Gold said recently.

Which brings us back to Lambie. The young player is one who has blossomed with a change as Plumtree first switched him from fullback to inside centre and then, today, to flyhalf.

Lambie, by his own admission, is still trying to find his home, but he is enthusiastic about the move to flyhalf and his special skills suggest that he is more effective and influential in the busy role of play-maker rather than being isolated at fullback.

He was successful at 15 because he was safe under the high ball, tackled solidly and kicked well, but he does not possess the searing pace or the elusiveness of the modern, counter-attacking fullback.

He then made an immediate impact when moved to the midfield because of his straight running and long passing game, but his real strengths are his use of space, his vision and an ability to ride tackles because of his low centre of gravity. He also has that priceless quality of having time to make his play and that will help him cope with the heavy traffic close to the forwards.

We will see against the Lions today whether flyhalf is indeed Lambie’s new haven. And, if it is, he must drop anchor and not budge.

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