SBW's attitude rubs off on flanker Messam

RICHARD KNOWLER IN DUNEDIN
Last updated 05:00 15/09/2012
Liam Messam
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LIAM MESSAM: Training alongside good friend Sonny Bill Williams at the Chiefs has helped to take his game to another level.

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He may now be prowling Japanese rugby fields, yet there is a sense Sonny Bill Williams' impact on the All Blacks remains.

To be precise it is the bloke who will wear the black No 6 jersey against the Springboks tonight - Liam Messam - who appears to have benefited most from Williams' tenure in New Zealand.

When he joined the Chiefs last summer Williams re-kindled the friendship he formed with Messam on the All Blacks' northern hemisphere tour in late 2010.

In addition to flogging themselves in pre-season training the duo paired-up in the boxing gym and fronted for the Super Rugby season in good nick.

The sight of Williams and Messam hanging out after Chiefs trainings became a regular sight and their last match together was when the All Blacks beat the Wallabies 22-0 at Eden Park on August 25.

Although Williams left for Japan there is a sense Messam continues to reap the benefits of working alongside his close friend.

Chiefs' forwards coach Tom Coventry watched their development during the Super Rugby season and believes Williams played a part in Messam fighting past Victor Vito and Adam Thomson to secure the All Blacks blindside flanker job.

And it was not just on the field where his friendship with the former Kiwis rugby league star proved beneficial.

With Williams alongside him, Messam knew to pick and choose his moments to crack a funny and to graft in training.

“I think Sonny was a good influence in that area - like when it is training time, it is training time," Coventry said. “As soon as your boots are on or are in the gym, you get stuck into that and do the best you can.

“Maybe some of that frivolousness about being the class clown has gone from Liam too. He still enjoys that but I think he has just been able to adjust to when the timing is right - whether to have a bit of fun or roll the sleeves up and get stuck into it."

Coventry, who joined the Chiefs under new coach Dave Rennie this year, watched Messam's progression with interest.

Although always labelled as a player of talent - Messam has several Commonwealth Games gold medals as a sevens rep - he struggled to gain traction with the All Blacks.

His debut was against Scotland in late 2008 but he never nailed down a starting place with Jerome Kaino hogging the No 6 jersey.

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The 2010 tour, when Williams and Messam formed their friendship, had serious ramifications for both men's careers. Nearly 12 months later Williams was named in the All Blacks squad, while Messam was rejected at late notice and replaced by Vito.

Some reconstruction of Messam's game was required when the new coaching regime replaced former boss Ian Foster's crew at the Chiefs.

Where there was an emphasis for Messam to be a ball-carrier under Foster he was encouraged to spread the workload across other parts of his game.

“We tried to emphasise the work required at the breakdown and at the tackle.

“His carries were always of a reasonably good quality but it was just a matter of getting him to carry among eight forwards, rather than three or four who had been asked to do that role," Coventry said.

With Williams alongside him and insisting on a professional attitude, the dividends have been reaped. Now it is Vito and Thomson who have been left to chase the No 6 jersey.

His consistency, said Coventry, was proof.

“It doesn't surprise me.

"But if you had asked me at the start of the year whether he would be able to crack the All Blacks, there would have been a few question marks."

Blenheim-born Messam, 28, also accepts he has made some vital shifts off the field but said he didn't need to check his nightlife or drinking habits.

“I'm not one to party hard anyway. It was just family things, things that have happened with my family have brought me back to earth and made me realise rugby isn't everything."

His pre-school son Jai has played a major role in this change.

“That's one thing - in the past, if I had a hard day I would get back (home) and keep having a hard day. But now I go home and my little fellow doesn't care what has happened to me.

“He just wants to play and turn on the Cars DVD."

During the All Blacks tour in 2010 Messam was joined by his partner Jai in Edinburgh.

It was encouraged by management because he had previously been representing New Zealand in the Commonwealth Games and wanted to be re-united.

Coventry said Messam was no soft touch, with the fortitude to pop the pain barrier when carrying injuries.

“And anyone who wants to get into a boxing ring with Sonny Bill Williams as a sparring partner has to be mentally tough. He is very similar to Sonny in lots of ways.

“I think he could put his hand to a number of things and be good at them as an athlete.

"I could easily see him becoming a boxer if he wanted to be one. He's unrelenting and has a real mental edge to him."

- Canterbury

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