There’s a lot more to Ben Lam than muscle and hustle on that left wing for the Hurricanes, writes MARC HINTON.
It wasn’t easy nailing down Ben Lam for this interview, and not just because he has kind of mastered the art of elusiveness, as evidenced by his competition-best 14 tries in 13 outings in Super Rugby this year. Turns out he’s been a little bit busy.
Lam isn’t just the form player in Super Rugby, pre-June, with his starring role for the Hurricanes in yet another championship-level campaign by the boys from New Zealand’s capital city. On no, there is so much more to this 26-year-old strapping Kiwi who can run like the wind, and finish tries with just the hint of room.
Did you know he’s just six papers from finishing a geography degree with a minor in marine biology? Or that he’s one of the founding members of the Hurricanes’ inaugural book club, which was formed because four young men were, frankly, sick and tired of sitting round hotel rooms without achieving something mentally stimulating.
Also, that book club has morphed into an investment co-op because the same quartet decided to further challenge themselves by turning their little cerebral venture into something altogether more practical, with them figuring out ways they could be productive with the money they make from their craft.
Or that when he’s not smashing through or squeezing past defenders on the rugby field, Misimoa Benjamin Lam, to give him his full name, is most at home with a scuba tank on his back plunging the depths of the waters off Wellington’s south coast. Diving is the other pursuit he jumps into with a passion.
There’s a lot about Lam that defies the conventional. In a sport where good things tend to happen pretty damn quickly for its elite practitioners, this is a fellow with the patience of Job, requiring half a dozen years of persistence and perseverance to even command a regular starting spot in Super Rugby.
We could go on. His partner, Jess, is a doctor who has, shall we say, enlightened her man about the wisdom of putting health and well-being first in lifestyle choices when your body is essentially the tool of your trade.
In short, this is a one-time Aucklander, now resident of New Zealand’s capital city, who combines brain with brawn in his day-to-day life. A poster boy for the modern professional rugby player. A physical and athletic beast who, when still at school, was a sub-11-second 100m runner; yet a man now revelling in the subtleties of his craft and positive spinoffs of spatial awareness.
With that depth to his mind, he’s also a fellow who has a fairly decent grip on reality. So while a large chunk of his country’s rugby cognoscenti bemoaned his absence from Steve Hansen’s first squad of 2018 for the June series against France, the blockbusting Hurricanes wing just shrugged his broad shoulders and figured, “I’m close, so what’s not to be excited about?”
Did we mention he’s a smart guy?
The 1.91m, 110kg speed merchant, who has signed a two-year extension with the Canes, puts his 2018 breakthrough down to a mix of opportunity and maturity.
‘I’ve been more active on the field and getting my hands on the ball earlier, so I can get into the game early and build that confidence as the game flows,’ he says. ‘The sooner I can get hold of the ball, the easier it comes to me.’
Lam has also had to persevere. Injuries have held him back frequently, as have coaches’ notions. Despite being a sevens standout for his country, he played just six times for the Blues between 2012 and 2015. Last year, his first with the Canes, he made just five appearances and a single start.
‘It was a matter of having faith and believing in what I’d done,’ he continues. ‘I knew if I could get healthy and come into this season fit, I could have a good season. All I needed was that opportunity to play week in, week out and build confidence.’
Other aspects of the game have also taken on new meaning for a footballer who once took his talent a little for granted.
‘As I’ve gotten older, preparation, recovery and nutrition have become a lot more important – doing the little things to help your body. You could go out on a Saturday and it takes you two days to recover … now I’m trying to be more professional and do things that will help my body.’
Jess has also lent a fresh perspective, and made him much more aware of the ill-effects of excessive drinking.
‘I get home and realise what else is out there. She comes home with stories about some horrible things. A bad day to her is different to a bad day for me. I don’t have much to complain about.’
You ask Lam about his ability to score tries in the tightest of spaces. For a big man, he’s remarkably dextrous.
‘It’s been a focus at training,’ he shrugs matter-of-factly. ‘I try to be aware of where I am and the space I have. When I finish tries at training I always put the ball down over the line, so I’m aware of where I am and how I can move my body within that small space.’
And that varied life of his … the books, the study, the diving, the business interest?
‘It’s been a big thing this year, trying to focus outside rugby. I have good people around me. My family has always encouraged me to do other things and my partner always tells me to look outside rugby, and use the opportunity to further myself. It doesn’t last forever, but if you can set yourself up it makes that transition a lot easier.’
That awareness helped Lam deal with his All Blacks omission.
‘I knew with the talent they already had, it would be difficult to get in,’ he says. ‘But to have your name mentioned in that talk is a positive, and if I can keep playing the way I am, hopefully it will come.’
Like the book club he formed with Ardie Savea, Blade Thomson and Chris Eves (they have just finished The Girl on the Train), his All Blacks fortunes could change.
‘It’s starting to develop into business ideas, with us trying to get thinking about what we can do with our money. It’s another good way to get out of that rugby mindset and expand our thinking.’
The pages turn. The plot thickens. Things just get more and more interesting.
– This article first appeared in the July 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine.