Former Springbok and Saracens scrumhalf Neil de Kock ranks Lukhanyo Am among South Africa’s greatest centres and believes his role in a notoriously stingy defence is priceless.
In a column for RugbyPass, De Kock compared the Bok all-rounder to 2007 Rugby World Cup winner Jaque Fourie, regarded by many as South Africa’s best centre of the professional era.
“Lukhanyo Am is pivotal in his role as defensive organiser in the Springbok backline and is equally effective on attack owing to his physicality,” said De Kock. “He doesn’t stand back in the No 13 jersey. You often find midfielders are only good in one of the two aspects but Am, like Jaque Fourie was, is well-balanced on both attack and defence.”
The former Bok halfback, who now works at the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport, credited a return to ‘traditional strengths’ under Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber for South Africa’s revival since 2018.
“After the Springboks copped a 57-0 hiding from the All Blacks in 2017, the new coaching staff dialled it back. Nienaber and Erasmus worked on what they could control and returned to South Africa’s traditional strengths. The Springboks have always been strong in the physical part of the game and they focused on dominating the set-pieces and collisions. It became about defending well and keeping teams out.”
Am has emerged as a world-class hinge in the Bok defensive line and his ability to make good reads, and win the tackle fight at the point of attack, funnels runners back towards the pack’s gaping maw.
“Am made a miraculous try-saving steal against Argentina last Saturday,” added De Kock. “He has been unbelievable for this Springbok group and I think his value is often understated from an external front.
“He is the type of player who slips under the radar but I would suggest that he would probably be one of the first names on most of his colleagues’ team sheets. In terms of his effect and impact, what you would find is that internally the squad would agree that he is invaluable.”
While Bok supporters are licking their chops at the prospect of a milestone 100th Test against the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship, De Kock warned the world champions not to overlook the threat posed by the Wallabies.
“The Boks bring a brutal physicality to the field but it’s always in a disciplined and well-organised system, which makes it so frustrating for teams to break down. However, if there is one team in world rugby who can unpick the Bok defence, it’s the Wallabies who employ a multi-phase approach,” he said.
“For Australia, it’s about the speed of their ball. They are going to look around channel one and two to unlock the Boks’ aggressive rush defence and have been pretty cute with over-throws at the back of the lineout and have introduced some really interesting first-phase plays around scrum-time.
“I have also been impressed with 22-year-old scrumhalf Tate McDermott, who snipes around the fringes, and I expect him to be a catalyst in terms of trying to expose South Africa closer to and around the ruck. It’s about trying to get a defender to bite and then putting someone into a half-gap.
“When the Wallabies tackle the Springboks on the Gold Coast, it will be about trying to speed up the game and not getting into a position where there are too many stoppages.”
This match on Sunday, 12 September marks the start of the away leg for South Africa and is followed by a rematch in Brisbane six days later before the centenary match against the All Blacks in Townsville on 25 September.