For a long time everyone wanted Liam Messam to be Jerome Kaino.
Everyone, that is, except Messam himself.
Now finally, as he embarks on the end of year tour and the tiresome comparisons fade, Messam revealed he no longer feels pressure to be someone else; something he's not.
Essentially, he finally feels comfortable in his own skin.
"I hope people have accepted me for who I am," Messam said.
For the past year, Kaino's shadow loomed large over the All Blacks' No 6 jersey.
That was only natural.
Before departing on a two-year deal to Japan, Kaino was the arguably the world's best blindside - he was nominated for player of the year after the World Cup triumph.
His feared physical brutality - the enforcer approach - emulated bone-crunching hit-men Jerry Collins and Michael Jones.
Messam has no desire to be cast in that mould and hopes the critics have moved on from wanting him to be a clone of his predecessors. He certainly has.
"Everyone was looking for a Jerome Kaino replacement but I don't think the three of us [Victor Vito and Adam Thomson] were ever going to be the same as Kaino," he said.
"I make sure I go out there and be myself as a person. That's been the important thing. For me it's just making sure I do what I do for the Chiefs. That's being a leader in defence and bringing my physical presence. A lot of people say I'm not the biggest bloke going around but I give all I can out on that field."
Incumbent was not a term associated with Messam and the black jersey - even in June he wasn't an original All Blacks squad member. Vito and Thomson were preferred.
In just four months Messam has become the undisputed first-choice blindside. Only now would you consider him an established force, but he is no certainty to start in Monday's test against Scotland in Edinburgh, where he debuted four years ago.
"Everyone wants to keep playing. I know everyone else is going to get an opportunity but also that I've got to keep pushing myself to make sure I keep taking my chances."
The 28-year-old has played just 17 tests since his first visit to Murrayfield in 2008. After being recalled for the rout of Ireland in Hamilton this year, he's started seven of the last eight games for the All Blacks.
With Kaino gone, consistent test exposure has allowed him to carve a niche.
"Getting the opportunity to play at six has made a big difference," Messam said. "Most of my test matches previous to this season in the All Blacks have been at No 8. A big thing for me this year has been making sure I don't let down the jersey or my team-mates."
Messam was too loose and flamboyant earlier in his career. Some suggested he was more suited to sevens. He is not yet the complete package but his game continues to mature.
Under Dave Rennie and forwards coach Tom Coventry at the Chiefs his tightened focus has zeroed on the crucial core duties which helped the franchise secure their first Super Rugby title. On a personal level it has been a satisfying, and slightly surreal, ride.
"It's an pretty unreal season. It couldn't have gone much better.
"When the season is finished I can look back over the goals I set myself at the start of the year and be pretty happy."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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