Understated as a person, but never underrated as a player, and definitely not within the Springboks squad. Lukhanyo Am, heir apparent to Siya Kolisi, thrived in his first match captaining a South African international team earlier in the week, writes Mark Keohane.
The SA ‘A’ match against the British & Irish Lions was not an official Test match, but it was an international in every sense of the word and it was far greater a contest than most matches played as Test internationals, given the quality of the opposition and the composition of an SA ‘A’ side that was a Springboks Test team in line-up, if not name.
Am, playing outside his World Cup-winning mate Damian de Allende, was composed and calculated in everything he did on attack and in defence. There was mongrel in the way he attacked, menace in the way he finished his try and there is always something magical in the way he takes the ball to the line.
Am, his persona more private than public, has been forced to be more extroverted because of the captaincy at the Sharks, and his appointment to lead the SA ‘A’ team against the Lions is acknowledgement from within the national set-up that the Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber and National Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus, rate Am’s leadership as much as Sharks coach Sean Everitt.
Am will forever be remembered as the creator of Makazole Mapimpi’s World Cup final try against England in 2019 – the first by a Springbok in three World Cup finals – but remarkably he still managed to maintain a below the radar presence, despite his World Cup final heroics, in which he was the attacking difference and the general when it came to organizing the Bok defence.
Jaque Fourie is celebrated in this country and revered for what he achieved as a Springbok No 13. Fourie, a World Cup winner in 2007, was always recognized for his defensive intelligence as much as his power to break the line and finish tries.
Am is very similar to Fourie, if not in personality, then definitely in the way they play. Am, like Fourie, never looks flustered and he always looks fluent in everything he does.
I remember talking to SA Rugby’s National Director of Rugby and the 2019 World Cup winning coach Rassie Erasmus early on in 2018. Erasmus had returned from coaching at Munster and taken charge of SA Rugby, selected training national squads and spent time travelling the country, alongside his then defensive coach (and now national coach Jacques Nienaber). The aim of those alignment camps was to introduce themselves to the players, be introduced to the players and share the vision both felt would result in the Springboks winning the World Cup in Japan in 2019.
Erasmus, as any coach will tell you, had a few preconceived ideas of players and naturally left having been schooled in the evil of any perception.
He didn’t necessarily have a perception of Am, but he did tell me he was surprised at how much Am offered in conversation when it came to his understanding of the game and the technical aspects of midfield play. To qualify this, Erasmus had told me (before meeting Am) that the player would be his first choice No 13, based on what he had seen of the South African midfielders. He rated his play very highly, but had never worked with him.
It was on interacting with the player, getting into his mind and getting a feel of the player’s vision, as a midfielder and a player, that he was so impressed with Am. He knew Am could play the game, but in those sessions it became clear that Am was as much a thinker as he was a player.
Am is a World Cup winner and a Rugby Championship winner, but he has still only played 15 Tests. It seems like he has been around for a decade in international rugby. Equally Cheslin Kolbe, who has only played 14 Tests, but both players have made such an impact and won so much in these handful of Test matches.
Am is 27 years-old and is obviously being groomed to succeed World Cup-winning captain Siya Kolisi, who is unlikely to continue past the 2023 World Cup as an international player.
For now, South Africa is blessed to have Kolisi leading the forwards and a player as capable as Am among the backs.
Am’s first two years as a professional combined for just four matches, two each for the Border Bulldogs and the Falcons, but it was in 2015 that he announced himself with 18 matches for the Bulldogs, which resulted in his 10 appearances for the regional Southern Kings.
It only needed that one season for the Kings in 2016 for the Sharks to sign him and since then he has played 23 Currie Cup matches for the Sharks and since 2017 has played 57 times for the Sharks in Super Rugby and the Rainbow. Cup.
Am is that type of player that always seems to operate under the public radar, but when you ask his teammates they will tell you he is everything but under the radar, which is why so many experienced Test players so easily followed him into battle against the Lions.
Lukhanyo Am – World Class Sharks and Springbok centre
Also on www.keo.co.za