Bok midfield at the centre of attention

Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am have established themselves as the most lethal centre pairing in world rugby, writes Jon Cardinelli.

Lukhanyo Am fired the first significant shot in the three-match battle between the Springboks and the British & Irish Lions. 

In the third minute of the first Test at the Cape Town Stadium, the Bok outside centre anticipated the shape and flow of the Lions attack. With the primary threat identified and targeted, Am bolted forward and hammered his opposite number to the turf. 

While the Lions bounced back in the later stages to win the game, Elliot Daly did not. The following week, coach Warren Gatland selected Chris Harris at No 13 with the hope that the Scot would have better luck against South Africa’s outstanding midfield pairing.

Damian de Allende and Am took the fight to their counterparts at the gainline, with the former firing as hard and relentlessly as a blindside flank. Am proved he could strike with the rapier as well as the bludgeon when he chased a rolling grubber by Faf de Klerk and scored a try that effectively swung the second Test in South Africa’s favour.

The individual performances by De Allende and Am, as well as their display as a combination, served to prove a point. While some felt that South Africa, as a collective, were not as potent as they were in the latter stages of the 2019 World Cup, the midfield pairing of De Allende and Am was evidently still the best in Test rugby.

Rassie Erasmus ignored the armchair experts and social media naysayers to select De Allende as the first-choice No 12 at the World Cup, and the hard-running inside centre showed his value in the knockout games against Wales and England. After the global tournament, De Allende enjoyed a stint in Japan before joining Munster – and the latter spell in Europe forced the 29-year-old to take his game to the next level.

Most expected De Allende and Am to resume their partnership before the Lions series, but there was a time when that reunion was in jeopardy. Before flying back to South Africa, De Allende and several Munster teammates – including Bok lock RG Snyman – were badly burned in a firepit incident. 

De Allende eventually recovered to feature in a couple of warm-up matches, as well as the Tests. Snyman, however, was forced to have skin-graft surgery and missed the entire series.

‘I’m just grateful it didn’t end up being any worse,’ De Allende said. ‘I think RG got the worst of it. 

‘I got lucky, I’m glad I get to play rugby again. After it happened I did go into shock and I was in hospital on morphine, so I thought it was a joke at the time, but obviously once it wore off and the pain started to kick in it really struck me how bad it was, how much worse it could have been and how lucky I was.’

Am underwent a journey of his own in the period between the 2019 World Cup and the start of the Lions series. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, he was selected as captain of a Sharks franchise that was undergoing monumental changes. 

When the Boks returned from the international wilderness in July 2021, sources close to the camp suggested that Am was being groomed to succeed Siya Kolisi in the distant future, possibly after the 2023 World Cup. The Bok coaches did nothing to dispel the rumours when they backed Am to lead the South Africa A team against the Lions in a match that was dubbed ‘the unofficial fourth Test’.

‘Leading the side means a great deal to me,’ Am said at the time. To be selected as captain and to have experienced players in the team with more than 50 Springbok caps is something truly special. I’ve got so much backing from my teammates that I just can’t wait to get out on to the field.’

De Allende and Am made a statement in their first match as a combination since the 2019 World Cup final. The latter ran a great support line to take an offload from Cheslin Kolbe and score a crucial try. 

Despite the odds – which were considerable given the quality of the opposition and the hosts’ lack of game time over a period of nearly two years – the South Africa A side showed tremendous grit to beat the Lions 17-13.

De Allende and Am enjoyed a fine Test series. The inside centre’s power and work rate often created the space for South Africa to execute their attacking and kicking plans to perfection. Am was key to the team’s success on defence and claimed another important try in the second Test.

The best may be yet to come from this midfield combination. Both players are expected to feature prominently in the lead-up to the 2023 World Cup, where the Boks will be looking to defend their title.

Having won his first start in 2018, Am is still relatively new to Test rugby. That said, De Allende and Am have been backed to start together 16 times over the course of the past three years. 

It shouldn’t surprise anyone if they go on to break the South African midfield record (29 Tests) set by Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie. De Allende and Am – who have achieved a great deal already in a relatively short space of time – may well supplant those legends as the best Springbok centre pairing of the professional era.

Photo: Ashley Western/MB Media/Getty Images

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Dylan Jack