Lukhanyo Am has the silk and the steel to unpick the Lions’ lock

Brilliance in World Cup final a glimpse of the creativity centre can bring to Boks backline

Robbie Henshaw tries to tackles Lukhanyo Am during the Lions’ first Test win in Cape Town. Photograph: Luigi Bennett/EPA

Robbie Henshaw tries to tackles Lukhanyo Am during the Lions’ first Test win in Cape Town. Photograph: Luigi Bennett/EPA

 

With 64 minutes gone in the World Cup final and South Africa leading England by 18-12, the Springboks were turning the screw and Lukhanyo Am was about to tighten it further.

Willie le Roux fielded a box kick by Ben Youngs and was well tackled by Mark Wilson to set up a ruck inside halfway. Am was about to join the ruck when he realised they had a miss-match on the blindside, where he, Malcolm Marx and Makazole Mapimpi were faced by three tight five forwards, Dan Cole, George Kruis and Joe Marler.

He called for the ball from Faf de Klerk and quick hands by Am and Marx released Mapimpi for a run and trademark chip infield. Am beat Youngs to the ball and just as it bounced high over his head he had a quick glance to his left as he gathered.

Am then pulled the ball across his body from right to left without looking again to give Mapimpi an untouched run-in, while he continued to run nonchalantly into the in-goal area. Finally the Springboks had scored their first try in three World Cup finals.

Faf de Klerk and Lukhanyo Am celebrate with Makazole Mapimpi after his try in the World Cup final against England. Photograph: Inpho
Faf de Klerk and Lukhanyo Am celebrate with Makazole Mapimpi after his try in the World Cup final against England. Photograph: Inpho

Within 10 minutes, and England now forced to run the ball from deep, Marx stripped the ball from George Ford in the tackle. Am pounced, scooping the ball up for Pieter-Steph du Toit to pass to Cheslin Kolbe, and Kolbe did the rest.

“I could have scored,” he told The Sunday Times in an interview before playing for the Barbarians against England in December 2019. “There was no player in front of me. Elliot Daly was more behind me or coming from the side. If maybe he had tackled me, momentum would have taken me over. What came in my head was, ‘Don’t wait, don’t think about it, just make the pass’.”

Hence, it was a tad surprising to hear Ronan O’Gara say after last Saturday’s first Test win: “I think we’ve seen enough evidence from Am at 13 that he’s an athlete and a power player as opposed to a distributor.”

Loathe as we are to disagree in any way with O’Gara, a compelling analyst, but no less than Mapimpi and Kolbe, Am was fed only scraps. His first pass was in the 45th minute, when he received the ball on the left touchline from Damian de Allende and chipped ahead for the touchdown by le Roux which was overruled.

Am’s second pass from de Allende led to Robbie Henshaw nudging the ball from his grasp from behind. And that was his lot.

Yet that World Cup final link with Mapimpi demonstrated what they and Kolbe might be capable of if the Boks do more than kick the ball and have de Allende truck it up. It was also entirely fitting that Am and Mapimi should link for that try in the final.

Am grew up in the Zwelitsha township in King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape, also the birthplace of Makhaya Ntini, the former South African cricketer, and Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid campaigner. Am never knew his father, and was raised by his mother, Zukiswa, who left for work at 7am every day and returned at 8pm.

“She was a hard worker. She always made sure we were safe. The taxi dropped her off at eight and we had to make sure we were home before her. My sister would have started cooking dinner by then. We grew with a lot of love, love and respect. Our mother was strict. She said we had to stay away from all the bad things in the township. She made a great job.”

Am’s mother tried to persuade him to play football as none of his family had played rugby, but Am was always wearing green and gold colours when he was a child, even it was not a Springbok jersey.

“I loved rugby from a kid, but my mom told me I had to play soccer. I told her ‘No, ma. I like rugby. One day you will see me in these colours’.”

While Am went to De Vos Malan high school, about 20 miles south, Mapimi attended Jim Mvabaza School in Twecu, neither of which are fertile rugby schools.

Am (27) and Mapimi (31) both began their road to Springboks colours at Border Bulldogs before eventually Am moved to the Sharks in 2016 and Mapimpi followed two years later.

Am won one cap under Allister Coetzee as a replacement in the latter’s last game against Wales in December 2017 before both he and Mapimi became regulars under Rassie Erasmus, whose commitment to making the Springboks truly representative of the Rainbow Nation can never be disputed.

Alas, Am’s most notable contributions last Saturday merely did demonstrate his power and athleticism when bookending the game with that monster hit on Daly and brilliantly reclaiming an Elton Jantjies restart above Daly to set up the Boks’ desperate if futile final attack.

South Africa’s Lukhanyo Am trains ahead of the second Test against the Lions. Photograph: Ashley Vlotman/Getty
South Africa’s Lukhanyo Am trains ahead of the second Test against the Lions. Photograph: Ashley Vlotman/Getty

“I was quite intentional in setting the standards and trying to stamp the physicality that we were going to bring from minute one to minute 80,” said Am of that early tackle.

“As a team we’ve always had this great defensive mindset and it’s something we’ve been really good at and something we’re very proud of. I think once again this weekend it will be another physical battle that we will be taking on.”

There’s also some solace from the belief that the Boks will be better equipped to see out the 80 minutes in Saturday’s second Test, following the outbreak of covid in their ranks which affected their build-up.

“We knew how important the prep was and unfortunately it got disrupted,” said Am. “We kind of knew it would bite us toward the end of the game but we back our Bomb Squad to finish off the game and the players on the field to pull through until minute 80.”

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