Sharks centre Lukhanyo Am earned his first Springbok cap at the end of last year, and is hungry for more, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Between 2014 and 2016, Lukhanyo Am found himself playing for unheralded sides such as the Valke, Border and Kings. At that stage, his career path appeared uncertain as he searched for the big break that is often difficult to find when performing away from the spotlight that is predominantly occupied by the bigger unions.
Nevertheless, Am refused to be defined by his somewhat unfashionable surroundings while retaining the belief that hard work would eventually reap rewards. Those industrious efforts caught the attention of the Sharks, who made an offer for the talented centre to move up to Durban before the 2016 season.
However, with the Sharks’ midfield ranks still quite well stocked at that point, Am’s career took another detour as he was first loaned out to the Kings upon their re-entry to Super Rugby. That move provided him with the opportunity to bank meaningful game time and exposure, while emphatically reminding the Sharks of the raw gem they had at their disposal. It was also enough to see him earn inclusion in the South Africa A side that featured against the England Saxons in 2016.
After finally settling in at the Shark Tank, Am wasted little time in establishing himself as one of their first-choice midfielders and his consistently impressive performances were recognised with a call-up to the Springbok squad before last year’s June Test series against France.
By all accounts, Am was at the peak of his powers and poised to make his Test debut, before misfortune struck in the cruellest of circumstances. In the Sharks’ final Super Rugby match before the June international series, he suffered a freak injury after taking a blow to the face, which ruled him out of action for the Boks. It was a setback that once again tested the 23-year-old’s resolve.
‘Missing out on that June Test series was unfortunate because I felt like I was in a good space at that time,’ Am tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘Injuries are part of the game, but it was tough to take and I was quite hard on myself. However, I had good people around me to provide support and I knew I could overcome it quickly by staying positive.’
After several weeks on the sidelines, Am’s return coincided with the Sharks’ impressive run of form in the Currie Cup, with the Durban-based side progressing to a home final before coming unstuck against Western Province. Despite that disappointment, Am’s impressive form during the domestic competition earned him a recall to the Springbok squad for the end-of-year tour.
‘Coming back from injury, all I wanted to do was get my form back as quickly as possible,’ he says. ‘I was fortunate to be part of a Currie Cup squad that was performing week in and week out, which helped rebuild my confidence. We had a well-balanced team in the Currie Cup and we could play running rugby or tighten it up if need be. It was great to be involved in that campaign, even though we were unable to go all the way.’
Although Am received plenty of plaudits for his incisive attack and willingness to take the ball to the gainline, it was also his natural ability to read the game and contest at the breakdown that added to his all-round contributions. In fact, by the end of the Currie Cup, he was ranked second for turnovers won (eight).
Once back in the Bok set-up, there were widespread calls for Am to receive his first Test cap – particularly after the Springboks slumped to a record 38-3 defeat to Ireland in a tour opener where centres Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel failed to make an impression. Instead, former Bok coach Allister Coetzee turned to the experience of Francois Venter and Am had to patiently wait until the final end-of-year clash against Wales before finally making his first Test appearance. Regardless of the fact he was only called into action in the 77th minute when the Boks were already staring at a defeat, the humble youngster reflects on that period with the national side as a highly productive experience.
‘Overall, I felt that last year was a good one for me. From Super Rugby to being included with the Boks was a huge sign I was doing something right. Despite the disappointment of missing out on the June series, it was an amazing experience to be involved in the end-of-year tour. I got my first taste of Test rugby and although I did hope to play a bit more, I was just satisfied to get my first Bok cap. The vibe in the camp was good among the players and it kept me positive. I felt that I grew as a player from the first day of the tour to the last.’
Such a pragmatic viewpoint provides insight into Am’s laid-back and carefree character, but one who thinks carefully about his game.
‘Finishing the year with a Bok cap was special, but I want this year to be an even bigger one for me,’ he emphasises. ‘As much as I don’t want to put unnecessary pressure on myself, I do want to be more consistent as a player, and by doing that I think it will give me a better opportunity to be picked at a higher level. Being selected is out of my hands, but what I can control is how I perform each week.’
Am’s ability to feature at either inside or outside centre has also added to his utility value, although it’s his defensive decision-making and impressive communication that have seen him primarily begin to settle at 13.
‘As a centre, I know I need to master my attack and defence, while my option-taking in crucial moments is so important,’ he says. ‘Those are the things I’m focusing on. I enjoy playing 12 and 13, but with the Springboks in mind, I think it would be beneficial for me to try to specialise in one position. I have mostly played at 13 of late and I am quite comfortable there. It’s a position that requires good decision-making and for me to ensure I put myself in the right areas to read the game well.’
Such a strength was no more evident than in the third round of this season’s Super Rugby, with Am scoring two tries that originated from superb running lines. And while the Sharks endured a largely forgettable start to their campaign, Am emerged as one of the few standout players who caught the eye of new Bok coach Rassie Erasmus.
Indeed, if the young centre remains fit and in form, there is every reason to believe he will be in the Bok mix by the time the June Test series against England rolls around. For the kid from King William’s Town, it’s already been quite a journey.
‘I always try to reflect and consider where I was a few years ago. From that point of view, to where I am right now, I must say I am very satisfied. It can be put down to nothing else but lots of hard work, and focusing on those little one percents to try to improve my game as much as possible, which I think has helped push me through.
‘I’m definitely in the right mind-space and am excited for this year. I want to try to catch the eye of the Bok selectors. There are new coaches in place, so it’s a clean slate for me to impress. Hopefully they will see something in me.’
– This article first appeared in the May 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine. The June issue is on sale 21 May.