As Liam Messam reflects on his anointment as the official blindside flanker of choice for the All Blacks, he has no doubts about where the credit lies for his dramatic career resurgence.
The 28-year-old started June as surplus to requirements in an enlarged national squad, with a firm message that his style of game did not fit the international blueprint.
He springs into mid-September as arguably New Zealand rugby's biggest mover.
And it's all down to the Chiefs, says Messam, laying an enlarged chunk of the credit at the feet of the Super Rugby champions' forwards coach, Tom Coventry. “If it wasn't for them I wouldn't be here,” said Messam yesterday after being confirmed as the No 6 to face the Springboks in Dunedin tomorrow night.
“The way the coaches had a new game plan for us, I guess it's just things we've done for the Chiefs this year. Without those boys I know I wouldn't be here.”
And Messam said it hadn't so much been at Steve Hansen's behest, as his Chiefs coaches' that he had tailored his game to suit what was required to fill the boots left by Jerome Kaino's exit to Japan.
“It was more what Smithy and Rens wanted for the Chiefs, and the way that Tom [Coventry] wanted our forwards to play, and to get a bit of recognition. No-one really backed our forward pack, no-one really rated us. The way they tried to play was an up-the-guts physical sort of battle, which I guess Shag [Hansen] is looking for as well."
Messam, who at 28 has only just nailed down a regular starting spot in the All Blacks, put a lot of his ascension down to a pretty settled mind-frame.
“One of the main reasons is I'm just enjoying my footy and enjoying life,” he said. “If you enjoy your footy and love what you're doing the rest takes care of itself. Obviously, winning week after week for the Chiefs has helped too.”
Hansen was more than happy to give Messam a hearty endorsement as he takes his place alongside the redoubtable Richie McCaw and Kieran Read for what is always a huge loose-trio battle against the Boks.
“He's bringing a consistency of high-quality performance,” said Hansen. “There's just a little bit more physicality there than we were getting off Victor [Vito]. He's comfortable in his skin and playing particularly well.”
Read says he has been impressed by Messam's strides in 2012, and more than happy to have another strong personality on the park.
“He's a natural leader, and hasn't been afraid to do that in this team this year. That's given him confidence on the field, and he's also brought great physicality which we needed in that No 6 jersey.”
Though the pats on the back are coming thick and fast - and rightly so - the talented loosie says he is in no sort of comfort zone having finally achieved his long-term ambition.
“One thing I live by is never to be comfortable,” he said.
“Once you are comfortable is when you start getting knocked off. I just make sure I've always got an edge about myself when I train or when I play.”
And, like any good All Black, he is his own harshest critic. “I haven't been happy with my performance yet. I've still got a lot to learn and a lot to give to this team. I'm just trying to give the best I can for the jersey.”
The way Messam's year is going, his best is more than enough.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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