Johannesburg - He may only be 23, but Lukhanyo Am has travelled a long way to be the overnight sensation this year’s Super Rugby season is making him out to be.
It is a little-known fact that the Sharks centre, whose promising performances for the Kings in last year’s Super Rugby probably got buried along with the team’s results, was based in Kempton Park, Johannesburg, in 2014 and playing for the Valke while searching for first-class game time.
But when homesickness and the lack of a comfort zone struck, Am – who grew up in Zwelitsha, the same King William’s Town township that gave us Springbok centre Gcobani Bobo – went back to play another season for the Border Bulldogs.
Detour on loan
Yet, little did he know, the key to success lay on the road. To his credit, after pulling a Steve Harmison (cricketer “Harmy” was as famous for his fast bowling as he was for his homesickness), he resolved to take the next offer out of East London.
And, as it turned out, he found himself with the Sharks after a wee detour on loan to the Kings in Port Elizabeth last year.
“The Kings experience was a great experience for me as an individual,” he says.
“I gained a lot and grew up as a player and as a person.”
While his performances for the Kings were rewarded with a call-up to the South African A team, it is this year that those performances are match-winning efforts, as was evidenced by that last-minute try against the Brumbies in the second round.
Having fluffed their lines to lose their first game to the Reds on their first tour game, the Sharks seemed up against it at 15-3 down against the Brumbies the following week. Then, not only did they claw their way back into the game, but Am successfully chased down a kick ahead by replacement Curwin Bosch to score.
As a South African youngster, Am would not have seen many teams from this country win in Canberra on television, so to be the man who scored the try to win it for the Sharks was quite something: “The way we lost to the Reds meant it was going to be tougher against the Brumbies,” he says.
“But we always believed and, from the word go, we just kept playing. After I scored that try, I didn’t know how to feel – it was probably one of the best moments of my career.”
The crucial try aside, the most impressive aspect of the outside centre’s game has been his all-round game, particularly his reading of the game and his work over the ball at the breakdown. Am has such good instincts, he may well have a sixth sense about where the ball is going to end up, and has the fleetness of mind and foot to exploit it.
“You need to have an awareness around the ball, I think it comes naturally when I’m playing. It’s not something I work on,” he says.
At 1.86m tall and weighing 95kg, Am also does good work over the ball at the breakdown.
“As a centre or a hooker, you’re like an extra loose forward. The system also allows everyone to go for the ball if the opportunity comes up.”
Time and space
While he didn’t link the two together, his being introduced to rugby “somewhere in the forwards” as a Grade 4 pupil at De Vos Malan in King William’s Town – before a move to fly half and then centre in high school – might have something to do with his penchant for poking his head into rucks.
On whether he has a preference for inside or outside centre, the man who looked up to former Springbok captain Jean de Villiers, “a good all-round centre in attack and defence”, says he doesn’t really have one.
“The difference between the two is more how you defend, and how much time and space you have. But when carrying, it’s not really a problem for me – after the set pieces, you can do what you want.”