Sharks and Springbok centre Lukhanyo Am sees the game differently, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Lukhanyo Am is not the biggest rugby player on the international stage. He’s not the fastest or the strongest, either. According to his coaches at the Springboks and Sharks, however, the 25-year-old outside centre may go on to be one of the top performers at the 2019 World Cup.
Rassie Erasmus and his lieutenants don’t feel that Am’s inexperience will compromise the Boks at the global tournament later this year. Like Stephen Larkham, Dan Carter and several other players who have left an indelible mark on the game, Am views the contest through a different lens.
‘He sees the space nobody else sees,’ says Bok assistant coach Mzwandile Stick. ‘He’ll find a way to put his teammates into that space. That’s why he’s such a key man for the Sharks in Super Rugby and why he will be a key man for us at the World Cup.
‘Perhaps some people have underestimated him,’ Stick adds with a chuckle. ‘He’s not the biggest guy around and I often remind him that my calves are bigger than his. But he sums up the situation in a game very quickly. On defence, he gets into position and that, coupled with his excellent technique, can stop ball-carriers dead.
‘His ability to read the situation can also lead to counter-attacking chances and, as we know, the transition from defence to attack is so important nowadays. Curwin Bosch made an excellent intercept when the Sharks played the Blues in February, but you need to go back and look at what Lukhanyo did in the buildup. The pressure he applied on the attacking team led to that mistake, which in turn led to Bosch’s intercept and ultimately five points for the Sharks. I don’t think Lukhanyo gets enough credit.’
Stick first coached Am when the player was on loan to the Kings in 2016. The two were reunited at the Boks last year. Stick rejoined the Bok coaching staff, while Am enjoyed a series of starting chances before suffering a season-ending arm injury.
‘He’s come a long way, but I’d be lying if I said he impressed me from the outset,’ says Stick. ‘He was a bit quiet and shy and as I didn’t know much about him, I told him I could only judge him by what I saw. The onus was on him to show me what he could do.
‘He responded positively. Even then, his potential was evident. He started to settle into the environment and receive a few more opportunities. That helped his confidence. Lukhanyo has got a big heart and an excellent rugby brain. He just needed to build a little bit of momentum at that stage. He opened up. He started to express himself. And from there, we started to see what he could do.’
More than two years have passed since Am’s stint with the Kings. Injuries have prevented him from playing regularly for the Boks and yet he made a lasting impression in his five Test appearances in 2018.
Am delivered a timely reminder of what he can offer the national side in the early rounds of Super Rugby. His vision and execution made all the difference to the Sharks’ approach as the Durban-based team romped to two bonus-point victories and took a deserved lead at the top of the overall Super Rugby log.
David Williams is a well-travelled coach, having enjoyed stints at Bath and London Irish in England, the Kobe Steelers in Japan, and the Kings and Cheetahs in South Africa. Since linking up with the Sharks as the franchise’s attack coach in late 2018, he’s had the chance to witness Am’s rare qualities first-hand.
‘I’d been following Lukhanyo for a while as a fan,’ Williams tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘What struck me when I met him was the extent of his skill set as well as his attitude and way with people. He’s one of those guys who is always looking to build on the positives. When there’s a mistake on the field, he tries to keep moving forward.
‘There are a lot of special players who can run, pass, catch and kick. Lukhanyo sees the game differently, though. He’s able to see the contest unfolding; he can see a different picture and perhaps a different outcome. He reminds me a bit of [former British & Irish Lions centre] Jonathan Joseph, who I coached at Bath. Lukhanyo’s got that same outside step, that same ability to see the game and shut people down.’
When you meet him, Am comes across as shy and reserved. Stick and Williams confirm, though, that communication and decisiveness are among his strengths and that he is constantly talking about performance in a team rather than individual context.
‘He’s part of the leadership group at the Sharks, even though he’s one of the quieter people in the team,’ says Williams. ‘That said, he’s the calm head out on the field, the guy who never seems to get flustered, no matter the extent of the pressure. He’s one of the key guys in terms of driving the technical and tactical aspects of our game plan. I call him “The Expert” due to his professional approach on and off the field. His attention to detail is remarkable and we’ve come to expect his intelligent and well-researched input in team meetings.’
What do these comments say about Am’s talent and future in the game? Such statements about vision and creativity are usually reserved for world-class No 9s, 10s and 12s. Could Am shift to inside centre in future? Wouldn’t his vision and ability to orchestrate an attack be better utilised from that position?
‘When I was at the Kings, I asked his former coaches at provincial level for their view,’ says Stick. ‘They told me Lukhanyo was a 12. Rassie was working as SA Rugby’s high performance manager at that stage and he also felt Lukhanyo would do well to focus on that position.
‘What myself and the other coaches realised is that Lukhanyo is a good footballer with a great understanding of the game, and you need to find a place for a guy like that in the team. Maybe the players don’t like it when a coach talks about an individual’s versatility. What they need to understand is that we mean it as a compliment.’
Stick remembers how Am featured on the wing in some matches for the Kings during that 2016 Super Rugby campaign.
‘We had a number of centre options. Shane Gates, who is now with the Sunwolves, was one of our top players. I told Lukhanyo we needed him in the team, too, but he would have to make a contribution from the wing. He took it all in his stride. He never complained.
‘Three years later, I still don’t know if I can give you a straight answer. Is Lukhanyo Am a 12, a 13 or a wing? I just think he’s a good footballer who makes it look easy. You are always going to make a plan to fit a player like that in your starting team.’
Outside centres need more than speed and guile to be a force at the highest level nowadays. Am and Jesse Kriel have used the grubber and chip kick to telling effect for their Super Rugby teams and for the Boks. England and Ireland have used their centres in a similar manner in the Six Nations.
‘Think about where guys like Lukhanyo come from in East London,’ Stick says, when offering an insight to this aspect of Am’s game. ‘Down in that part of the Eastern Cape, you’re discouraged from kicking the ball. Whether you’re playing for Border or one of the big clubs, you don’t use the boot that often.
‘And yet Lukhanyo has managed to turn that into one of his strengths. He’s worked extremely hard, which is pleasing to see, given how crucial the kicking game is nowadays. It’s not just a means of relieving pressure. It’s a genuine attacking weapon. How often have we seen him setting up teammates with a well-executed grubber into space?’
Williams reveals that individuals and teams have to be good enough to identify the space first before making the decision to kick. Having a player like Am, who can anticipate the movement of defenders and then manage the attack, is a big advantage.
‘You have to identify where that space is, whether it’s between the defenders, on the outside, or even behind the defensive line,’ says Williams. ‘Lukhanyo is quick to spot that opportunity and make the most of it. We saw that in the round two clash against the Blues, where the Sharks got a lot of reward through his well-placed kicks. When you have a player like that, you can manipulate the opposition defence. The next time you have the ball, they won’t know whether you are going to kick or run. Suddenly they are in two minds about what to do.’
Stick believes Am is still a work in progress. Erasmus brought Stick into the Bok coaching set-up last season and gave him the task of boosting the players’ performance off the ball. This is an area in which Am and many other players in the national side have room for improvement.
‘He’s a hard worker, but I feel he can become even more effective in terms of his work off the ball. If you look at the top No 13s in the world, especially the All Blacks and Crusaders No 13 Jack Goodhue, they are defined by their work rate and what they do off the ball.
‘I have to applaud him for the effort he’s made to improve,’ Stick adds. ‘There was a situation last year where the Sharks had a two-on-one overlap in a match against the Jaguares. He didn’t make the right decision even though he had Makazole Mapimpi on his outside. There were a few mistakes when he first came into the Bok set-up. He worked hard to address those and you could see the difference by the time he played in the Rugby Championship. Just look at how influential he was when the Boks beat the All Blacks in Wellington. That performance showed he can be the man for the big occasion. More recently, we’ve noted how much more effective he’s been when playing for the Sharks in this year’s Super Rugby tournament.
‘Again, I need to make the point that he’s not the kind of guy to rest on his laurels. He has a few Bok caps, but he wants a lot more. He’s improved a great deal over the past six months and he will continue to grow if he gets a chance to play regularly over the next six. All in all, Lukhanyo is starting to find a balance in his game that perhaps wasn’t there before.
‘He’s already an important player for us at the Boks and one of the leaders at the Sharks. It’s exciting to think about the player he may become in future, though. I believe he’s the type of player who’s only going to get better with age.’
– This feature first appeared in the April 2019 issue of SA Rugby magazine.