Gianni Lombard, just by being on the field, is already a winner in this season’s United Rugby Championship. The schoolboy sensation of six years ago has twice fought back from serious knee injuries to star in the Emirates Lions stunning away win against the Ospreys.
Lombard will start again at No 10 against Cardiff on Friday evening, with Jordan Hendrikse providing cover off the bench.
Hendrikse, the 21 year-old brother of Springboks scrumhalf Jaden Hendrikse, started the opening match of the season and indications are that he and Lombard will share the No 10 responsibilities for the Emirates Lions.
Lombard, a former SA Schools and SA under 20 fullback/winger, was part of the famed Paarl Boys High School side that went 60 matches unbeaten in five years when Sean Erasmus was the head coach.
Lombard played First XV in the final two years of that five-year streak, with Paarl Boys High providing six of the SA Schools starting pack and 11 of the match 23.
Erasmus was scouted by the Emirates Lions and this influenced the decision of Lombard, centre Manuel Rass and loose-forward Francke Horn to make the move.
The DHL Stormers and Springbok lock Salmaan Moerat captained Paarl Boys High in the final year and of that side Dan Jooste and Takir Abrahams have played for the Sharks and Khanya Ncusane for the Sharks Academy.
‘It was a very well balanced side,’ said Erasmus. ‘It is encouraging that so many are making an impression so early on in their professional careers and it is particularly pleasing to see Gianni back after such big injury setbacks.’
Lombard, with supreme skill sets that includes goalkicking, was also a superb athlete at school. He ran 11.1 in the 100 metres but his specialist events were the 100 metres hurdles and 400 metres hurdles. He won silver in the 400 metres hurdles at the 2016 Under 18 World Championships.
The temptation was there to pursue an athletics career and take up scholarship offers in the United States.
His passion for rugby won the day, but it was rugby that nearly ended his professional sporting career.
An ACL injury, suffered in the Emirates Lions win against the Chiefs in New Zealand in 2019, ended his season and on his return to the field he did his knee again.
To come back from one knee injury takes some doing. To return from two, having come in quick succession, says everything about the mental strength of the 24 year-old.
Lombard took a different journey back from the second injury and joined former Emirates Lions and Gloucester coach Johan Ackermann at the Red Hurricanes in Japan. The move was part of a structured rehabilitation programme and Lombard was eased back into professional rugby in the Japanese league where the focus is more on the pace of the game.
He played four matches earlier in the year before returning to home for the start of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship.
To get a measure of just how hard Lombard has fought to play again, you only have to look at his professional match statistics. Since his professional debut in 2018, he has played just 19 matches, with six of them coming in the past few months.
Compare that with a player who never missed a match for his Schools First XV, played in all three SA Schools matches in 2016 and played in 10 out of a possible 10 SA under 20 matches in 2017 and 2018, including two junior World Cups.
‘The hardest part of being injured was watching your mates play every week but I never lost hope or motivation. The medical team, rehabilitation team and the coaches at the Lions were so good in providing all the support I needed,’ said Lombard. ‘To be on the field, playing for the Lions in the Vodacom URC is just the greatest feeling.’