Last time Liam Messam visited Rome it was off the back of a summer moving hay bales.
One dollar a bale had been the deal for Rotorua Boys' High School's sixth form flanker as he raised money for the first XV's trip to Dubai and Italy.
It'd been hard work. Messam can still recall the burning muscles in his arms, legs and back and the mistake of not wearing long pants while heaving each bale onto the back of the truck.
But the hard work paid off that year with Messam making the 2001 New Zealand Secondary Schools side.
And, as he stood in the centre of Italy's capital city this week where he seems certain to start at blindside at Stadio Olimpico on Sunday (NZT) he could afford a satisfied smile at the memory of the Boys' High trip.
They had stayed across the road from the Colosseum and put 100 points on a local high school as well as an adult club side during their two weeks in Rome.
The previous two years had marked a new beginning for the Blenheim-born teenager.
His talent had always been immense, so much so that New Zealand sevens coach Gordon Tietjens had called him into a training squad at the age of 15.
Even by Tietjens' standards that's a punt, more so when you consider Messam reckons he was tipping 120kg and decidedly unfit when he got the tap while playing for the Bay of Plenty sevens side.
The guru of talent ID isn't often wrong and after watching his new project heave and struggle through his fitness sessions he took him aside.
It wasn't a long conversation. Get fit and the sky's the limit.
Messam took it on board, started running, lifting, and eating the right food.
Which brings us to his nick name Hunga, one he blames on former Waikato centre Keith Lowen.
"I was originally called Hungry," he laughs. "My good mate Keith Lowen, when I first moved to Hamilton, took me under his wing and I moved in with him.
"He pretty much looked after me for three years and he likes to eat. It was back in my sevens days under Titch's regime I ate salad and nothing fried.
"He [Lowen] took me to a Chinese restaurant for lunch and it took about three hours to eat the lunch, but I didn't touch anything. As a result I was hungry for the rest of the day and it sort of went from there and it's been broken down to Hunga."
What didn't break down was Messam's attitude to fitness, diet and training.
When the New Zealand under 19 side played Ireland at the 2003 Junior World Championships their blindside stayed on the field after full time to run wind sprints with the reserves who hadn't got on.
He reckons he's chilled out a little on the diet since devoting to the fifteen-a-side game, but says boxing in this year's Fight for Life, only strengthened his mentality around work ethic.
"I enjoy my food a bit more. I do watch my diet but not quite as strict as with the sevens," he said. "You ask any [former New Zealand] sevens player and you sort of have Titch in the back of your mind whenever you are trying to eat ice-cream or a bit of chocolate.
"This environment [the All Blacks] is a bit more relaxed and you get to enjoy your food a bit more."
Messam got down to about 99kg during his sevens days but now he weighs around 110kg.
He reckons he's "older and wiser" at 28 than when he made his test debut against Scotland back in 2008, plays a tighter style.
What hasn't changed is an attitude toward fitness and nutrition that's seen him edge ahead of his rivals this year as the All Blacks' incumbent No 6.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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