There’s no doubt the absence of Maxime Machenaud has taken a major weapon out of Racing 92’s armoury ahead of Saturday’s Champions Cup final showdown with Leinster but assuming the Parisians will have no creative fulcrum without the France scrum-half is reckoning without Pat Lambie.
As influential as Machenaud has been in Racing’s march to this weekend’s final in Bilbao, not least his almost faultless goal-kicking, his half-back partner Lambie has also played a significant part in unleashing the huge wealth of talent in the French side’s backline as Munster experienced to their cost in Bordeaux three weeks ago during their Champions Cup semi-final defeat.
Ulster back-rower Marcell Coetzee knows just the sort of impact his fellow South African will be making on and off the field as Racing prepare for their second European final in three seasons.
Coetzee was Lambie’s team-mate for five seasons back home with Super Rugby’s Sharks, until the flanker left for Japan en route to Ulster for the 2016-17 season, with the fly-half leaving for Europe a year later.
With Coetzee’s bristling presence stunted by a serious knee injury that has kept him sidelined with the northern province for all but a handful of games in his two seasons in Belfast, it is not a stretch to say Lambie’s impact has been felt far more in the Top 14 since his arrival as he has shaken off his own health and fitness issues in style.
A series of concussions were followed by a fractured vertebrae, his comeback from that halted by another blow to the head that had supporters fearing whether the fly-half would be seen on a rugby pitch again.
Former Sharks team-mate Coetzee is not a bit surprised by his return both to rugby and stellar form.
Coetzee, who hopes to complete his rehabilitation in time for Ulster’s pre-season campaign under new head coach Dan McFarland this summer, said Lambie was an unassuming leader at the Sharks but one whose demeanour and actions commanded respect.
“When he does talk all the players do listen and just his experience and his knowledge of the game is something to admire. Seeing how he bounced back from the injuries is just a great testimony to the character he has as a person.”
Coetzee’s own journey back to full fitness has been just as painstaking, only one of his five appearances for Ulster coming this season before he required further surgery that ruled him out for another nine months.
“Just to be among them will be a sign of relief for me and, hopefully, it continues to go well so I can play that first game.
“It’s mentally challenging to come to a new club and you want to give back what they invest in you and then bad luck comes your way. It’s character-building at the end of the day, I’ve learned a lot about life in the last two years.”
Away from Ulster, Coetzee has been indulging his love of wildlife with an online course in wildlife management.
“I’m very fond of the bush and the animals coming with that. It’s another field, an online course that allows me on my own time... obviously, I’ve a lot of time now, but it’s good to take your mind off things as well.
“It’s a good reminder that rugby isn’t forever, that you need to establish yourself after rugby.
“It gives you a lot of direction, it enables you to one day run your own game farm if you would be interested or breeding animals, other species. I’m a very outdoors man, it’s where I find my peace.
"I’ve got a guesthouse right next to Kruger National Park, the whole habitat and the bush fills my soul as an off-field play. I’m looking to invest in that passion.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved