Versatile Liam Messam rolls with the punches
LIAM NAPIER IN BUENOS AIRES
Traditionally, top of the must-do list in Argentina is sampling a hearty steak.
A glance at Liam Messam's plate this week reveals there's no room for a thick slab of the finest local beef.
Not only is Messam tasked with covering all three loose-forward roles against the Pumas, in the back of his mind must be the imminent presence of Jerome Kaino. That's plenty to ponder. Enough to take your mind off the local cuisine, anyway.
Kaino's return will be formally announced within a week. His $700,000 annual salary - if he is recalled to the All Blacks - is a clear indication of the high regard the blindside flanker is held in.
The inevitable comparisons won't take long. In a similar situation to when Piri Weepu followed Alby Mathewson from Wellington to Auckland, you could forgive Messam for being a tad frustrated.
Understandably, the tireless Chiefs co-captain grew sick of living up to Kaino's standards, fielding questions of how he would replace the irreplaceable. He just wanted to be his own man. Be recognised for his unique brand of skills. No-one seeks to be a carbon copy.
Just as Messam had stepped out of the imposing shadow and proved those abilities to most, his predecessor is set to return and reignite that flame.
No-one is sure how Kaino's comeback for the Blues next year will play out, whether his physicality and all-round impact can reach the same level as 2011, whether he can keep pace with the long list of emerging talent at No 6.
For now at least, Messam is embracing the challenge. It is, after all, not the only one he's faced of late.
"It's awesome for New Zealand rugby if Jerome comes back," Messam said. "It's a big plus. The game has got a lot quicker [in the last two years] but Jerome is coming from Japan, so they probably play a faster style of rugby. He'll fit straight back in."
Having returned from a troublesome calf complaint, Messam should continue to hold off Steven Luatua in La Plata. After watching the athletic Blues prodigy make an immediate mark on the international arena, there may have been a few nerves before confronting the Springboks.
"It had been five weeks so I was happy to put the boots back on and throw my body into some rucks," he said.
While Richie McCaw makes his way back from a knee injury, Messam will also juggle covering openside and No 8, should Sam Cane or Kieran Read go down on Sunday.
In the lead-up to the clash with the Boks at Eden Park, Messam made it clear he did not fancy the openside role anymore. But it characterises his commitment that, wherever needed, he is prepared to step up.
"I've had a good run around at openside today and made sure I know the role. If I'm needed there I'm more than happy to fill in.
"It's a little bit different to blindside and No 8, but we've got the best in the world in that position [McCaw] and a young guy [Cane] who is going pretty well, so I've got a couple of good guys to learn off.
"I had really focused on six and eight, but this came up and it's best for the team, so I'm happy to cover."
Those hard metres should not be overlooked when Kaino returns.
Privately, Messam will know it's important to keep reminding everyone of his strengths. That way he can turn the tables.
The pressure will be on Kaino to prove himself again, not the other way round.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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