After a loan spell with the Kings for last year’s Super Rugby tournament, Lukhanyo Am has risen to prominence as the Sharks’ first-choice outside centre. CRAIG LEWIS reports.
Lukhanyo Am is speechless. When SA Rugby magazine catches up with the young centre only a few days after the Sharks’ return from their tour to Australia, he is understandably still basking in the afterglow of what he describes as the ‘best moment of my career’.
That moment came in the dying stages of the Sharks’ second-round clash against the Waratahs, when both teams looked set to accept an unsatisfactory 22-22 draw as the clock ticked past 80 minutes.
However, with one final throw of the dice, the Sharks launched an attack from within their own half. The ball first went wide from Am to replacement Curwin Bosch, who darted down the left touchline before desperately chipping in-field just as he was about to be bundled into touch. As if on a string, the ball bounced away from the scrambling Brumbies defence and into the path of Am, who scooped it up in one movement and flew over the tryline.
It was a match-winning try that salvaged a much-needed result and ensured the Sharks returned to South Africa with five log points to show for their efforts in Australia.
‘I don’t have words to describe that try,’ Am reflects. ‘Obviously, I just finished off the try, but it was undoubtedly the best moment of my rugby career. It was special. We were a bit flat in the first game [against the Reds], but were really motivated going up against the Brumbies, and knew that we desperately needed to get a result on tour. That victory also gave us great momentum.’
As if to illustrate that point, the Sharks romped to an emphatic 37-14 win over the Waratahs in their next game, at Kings Park, with Am once again featuring prominently.
It was the kind of eye-catching start to the season that reaffirmed his position as the Sharks’ first-choice outside centre, and a key member of their new- look backline.
‘He has been really good and the best of our backs for two weeks in a row,’ Sharks coach Rob du Preez raved. ‘He will just keep on growing.’
For Am, it’s been a rather remarkable rise to prominence. Born and raised in King William’s Town, he was schooled at Hoërskool De Vos Malan, where his love for rugby was ignited before he began his junior rugby career with the Border Bulldogs. It was a period in his fledgling career that was not without its ups and downs. In 2014, Am found himself in Johannesburg and playing for the Valke as he searched for his big break.
That search, coupled with an element of homesickness, fatefully drew him back to the Bulldogs, where his prodigious talents began to blossom. It ultimately earned him an offer to join the Sharks. But before settling in Durban, the opportunity arose for the 23-year-old to strengthen the Kings on loan for their re-entry to Super Rugby last year. For Am, it was another detour on his rugby journey, but one that provided an opportunity to gain the kind of exposure he probably would not have had at the Sharks.
Although Am headed to Port Elizabeth with few expectations, he entrenched himself in the Kings’ backline and ultimately banked 800 minutes of Super Rugby game time.
‘It picked up my game tremendously to gain that experience in Super Rugby,’ says Am. ‘I took a lot of confidence from coming up against top players from local and overseas franchises. It played a massive role in my development and made me feel comfortable that I could cope at that level.’
Back in Durban, Am slotted straight into a youthful Sharks backline for the 2016 Currie Cup. His game continued to evolve, with his natural instincts on attack and gutsy defence setting him apart. It also served to vindicate Du Preez’s view that the fleet-footed midfielder was capable of filling the all-important outside centre berth in Super Rugby.
‘The Currie Cup was a great campaign,’ Am reflects. ‘We had a young backline and played a great style of running rugby. It served as another learning curve ahead of pre-season training for Super Rugby.
'My goal from there was to establish myself in the Super Rugby squad and become a regular starter. Thankfully, I’ve had the backing of the coaches, while I’ve found the environment on and off the field at the Sharks to be very conducive to performing well. We have an understanding and respect for each other.’
Through hard work, determination and powerful self-belief, Am certainly repaid the faith placed in him by Du Preez.
He emerged as one of the Sharks’ most industrious performers during a start to the season that saw the Durban-based franchise clinch five wins in their first six games.
While Am’s elusive footwork and willingness to attack the gainline won him plenty of plaudits, it was also ‘uncoachable’ elements such as his ability to read the game and contest at the breakdown that added to his all-round contributions. His partnership with inside centre André Esterhuizen has also gone from strength to strength since last year’s Currie Cup. The burly inside centre’s direct, hard edge affords Am the room to razzle and dazzle.
‘I love playing alongside André, and I think we’ve really gelled well together,’ Am enthuses. ‘We have an understanding and complement each other’s strengths. At the Sharks, we’re also trying to embrace our attack and to give the ball a bit more air, which certainly suits my game. I’m feeling really at home at the Sharks and see my long-term future here.’
The impression Am made at the start of Super Rugby was duly recognised with his inclusion in an extended Springbok squad for a second training camp at the beginning of April. It served as yet another step along his road from relative obscurity to deserved prominence in the South African rugby landscape.
‘Of course, the dream is to wear that green and gold jersey,’ he says, ‘but at the moment I just want to play my best rugby at the Sharks.
‘If it so happens that I catch the eye of the Bok selectors, I’d be delighted, but the first step is to keep performing consistently on the Super Rugby stage.’
– This article first appeared in the May 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine