New Sharks captain Lukhanyo Am is in no doubt about the way forward, writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest issue of SA Rugby magazine.
Am doesn’t hesitate when he’s asked to reflect on the 2019 World Cup final and the pass that set up Makazole Mapimpi for a record-breaking try. ‘That was the best moment of my career,’ he says.
‘That try meant a lot in the context of the game. It took us 13 points clear of England. What marked that moment as truly special, however, was the fact that I got to share it with Makazole.
‘We’ve come a long way together. One moment we’re playing for Border in the Currie Cup First Division, and the next we’re throwing passes to one another in a World Cup final in front of 70,000 people in Japan. It still feels unreal. I suppose it goes to show what can be achieved if you don’t stop believing.’
Five years ago, Mapimpi’s only ambition was to play regularly for a Super Rugby franchise. When he joined the Sharks in 2018 he started to believe that he could represent the Boks and feature at the World Cup.
Am’s ambitions were similarly modest. He grew up in King William’s Town and developed a deep passion for the game. It was only when he started to play in the Currie Cup, though, that he pursued a career in professional rugby.
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Fast forward to the present. Mapimpi has developed into one of the best finishers on the planet. Am has proved a key man for the Boks in the outside centre channel, and could take his game to new heights when the national side builds toward the next big series against the British & Irish Lions in 2021.
‘We want to bring hope to the whole of South Africa,’ says Am of his achievements with the Boks in the 2019 Rugby Championship and World Cup. ‘With regard to the Eastern Cape, I have no doubt that there are a lot more Lukhanyo Ams and Makazole Mapimpis waiting to break through. There is talent in the First Division that should not be ignored. I suppose that our success also shows the young players in the rural areas that they should never ever give up.’
Rassie Erasmus believes that the Boks have something special in Am. The player himself reveals how much he has grown under the tutelage of Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber over the past two seasons.
‘Rassie backed me from the start, but I think what gave me the most confidence was how he was so clear about my role,’ says Am. ‘He didn’t overcomplicate things. He knew how to give me and the rest of the players energy, and that’s why we played the way we did in the latter stages of the World Cup. We were absolutely certain about our roles and how they fitted into the overall plan.’
Erasmus, as the South African director of rugby, will continue to work closely with the new coach. Jacques Nienaber has played an important role in terms of unlocking Am’s full potential.
‘I grew a great deal under Jacques. Working with him encouraged me to see the game from a different perspective. A lot of people saw me as an out-and-out attacking player at Super Rugby level. Jacques saw potential in me as a defender.
‘That gave me a lot of confidence. He worked closely with me on the technical aspects and motivated me before every game. As a result, I went on to the field with a lot of energy.’
Am’s ability to visualise and execute has been patent in the early rounds of this year’s Super Rugby tournament. On several occasions, the outside centre has put teammates into space or made an intercept to set up a try at the other side of the park.
Former Bok captain Jean de Villiers, who played both midfield positions in his decorated career and boasted a similar ability to intercept at crucial moments, is well placed to comment on what sets Am apart.
‘Lukhanyo didn’t receive enough credit in the wake of the World Cup win. His all-round contribution was nothing short of magnificent,’ begins De Villiers. ‘What I like about him is that he isn’t afraid to commit, whether he’s attacking the line, going for the intercept or taking the contact. We’ve also seen how potent he can be at the breakdown in terms of winning the ball back for his side.
‘His defensive reads are so good. Jaque Fourie used to look after that No 13 channel in a similar manner. It makes the world of difference to your defensive system when you have guys like that in the mix. Lukhanyo is a guy who sums up the situation very quickly, and he doesn’t hesitate to act.
‘That’s what all the special players have in common,’ stresses De Villiers. ‘If I can put it this way, it’s not just that they see a different picture, it’s that they see the whole picture and can determine what will happen next. For example, Lukhanyo will look up and in an instant he will see which of the opposition players are out of position and where there is a weakness that can be exploited on attack.
‘It’s the same on defence. He can sum up very quickly where the opposition attack is going to strike and is good at communicating that to his teammates. It’s a gift, but there’s no doubt that the best players refine this ability the more they play at the highest level.’
Am has taken on more responsibility in 2020. He is determined to pass on what he has learned with the Boks to the younger players at the Sharks. He has also taken on the captaincy and played a key role in creating a new playing style and culture.
‘The culture at the Boks was very player-driven, but that was put in place by the coaches. Rassie encouraged every player to take ownership in his department. There was no hierarchy. That taught me a lot about responsibility, and I guess put me in a position where I can take on the job of leading the Sharks.
‘There’s a complete buy-in at the Sharks this year,’ he says. That certainly wasn’t the case when Rob du Preez Snr was at the helm in 2019.
‘There aren’t any little niggles or problems within the squad,’ he continues. ‘It’s a happy and competitive environment and I feel like we all enjoy each other’s company on and off the field. That’s yet another example of the balance we’ve been preaching.
‘We had a leadership group in place at the start of the season. At that stage, I wasn’t thinking about the captaincy, only what I could do in my capacity as a leader in my position. Then coach Sean Everitt came to me before the Super Hero Sunday match against the Stormers and asked if I would consider taking the captaincy.
‘It got me thinking, and the more I considered it, the more I realised that it was time for me to step up. I’d been a senior player in the Sharks set-up for a few years and I had something to offer, having played with a successful Bok side. I knew what it was like to work with a strong group of leaders and how much easier it made it for the captain. I was confident that we had the same sort of structure at the Sharks.’
If fit, Am will start the big Tests for the Boks in July and in the subsequent Rugby Championship. Nienaber has made no secret about the fact that the team is building toward the three-Test series against the Lions in 2021. While players like Am achieved a great deal in 2019, the Boks must kick on in 2020.
‘We have to be more consistent,’ he says. ‘Personally, I just want the chance to represent my country again. I’m not the type of guy to say I want to achieve X in four years’ time. I know how quickly things can change, so I prefer to live in the moment and ensure that I make the most of every chance I get.’
SHARKS REAP BENEFITS OF CULTURAL SHIFT
2020 marks the start of a new era for the Sharks. They have a new CEO in Eduard Coetzee, a new coach in Sean Everitt, a new captain in Lukhanyo Am and a host of new and exciting players.
Am says that there’s been a drive to play with more balance in 2020. A change in approach has yielded some significant results. The Sharks certainly impressed on their four-game to Australasia, beating the Highlanders, Rebels and Reds.
‘There are a lot of new faces in the squad this season and ultimately a new energy about the team,’ says Am. ‘The coach and his staff have implemented some new ideas and we are all on board.
‘There’s been a drive to strike a better balance between attack and defence, and between using our forwards and backs. We’ve added more linespeed to our defence, and our transition from defence to attack has been better, with guys like Aphelele Fassi making an impact. We want to play with pace and energy, whether we have the ball or not.’
SHARKS COACH SEAN EVERITT ON…
APPOINTING AM CAPTAIN
‘It was an automatic choice, he’s a quiet guy, but very popular. He’s not a loud, outspoken leader but in his own quiet way he gets people to follow him. We thought it would be a good opportunity and the decision was received well among the players; I think they cheered the roof off when he was announced as captain. So it was a very popular choice among the squad.’