DURBAN - When the Springbok squad to tour in November is announced on Sunday, it is likely to include the name of Lukhanyo Am, and his fiercest rivals would not begrudge a selection that is not only fully deserved but belated, through no fault of his own.
The outside centre had been enjoying an excellent Super Rugby season for the Sharks and was tipped for a national call-up for the Rugby Championship when fate stepped in. He broke a cheekbone in the Sharks’ final Super Rugby match, and that was that for two months.
The year before, Am had played for the SA A team against the touring England Saxons as reward for his consistently good showings for the Kings in Super Rugby (he was on loan from the Sharks).
And then a good Currie Cup for the Sharks followed by a stellar 2017 Super Rugby campaign had him on the brink of the green and gold.
Am recently returned from injury in the Currie Cup and it was if he had never been away. He hit the ground running and has been back at what he does best - breaking the line out wide, reading the game well to be on hand to finish off tries, turning over ball out wide like a flank, and putting in big defensive hits.
This comeback form has shown his quality. No rustiness with him, no building towards his best form. He is good to go, and go he probably will with the Boks next month.
But a whole lot sooner than that Am will be a key part of the Sharks’ challenge for the Currie Cup on Saturday, a game poignant for him, too, in that he will be alongside one of his mentors, Odwa Ndungane, who retires after the final.
The 36-year-old will be passing on a baton to Am and a number of other youngsters in the Sharks backline.
Am, 23, has said that much of what he knows about rugby and life has been gleaned from his fellow product of the Eastern Cape, particularly when it comes to humility and respect.
The King William's Town-raised Am is now poised to emulate Sharks-produced Springboks from Border/Eastern Cape in Deon Kayser, Ndungane, Robbie Kempson, Mark Andrews, Keegan Daniel, Ryan Kankowski and Lwazi Mvovo.
There are plenty of others who have moved up the east coast to Durban, notably recently-capped Bok Curwin Bosch, Am’s flyhalf provider.
But at school at De Vos Malan in King William's Town, it was not the Sharks Am dreamed of representing, but the Bulls. “At school I thought (Bulls centre) Wynand Olivier was the centre to aspire to,” Am confessed in an interview earlier this year.
“That changed to (former Springbok captain) Jean de Villiers. I thought he was a great leader and a sensational centre, and when I was growing through the ranks at Border after school I looked up to him.”
Am was recruited by the Sharks Academy and they invested wisely when they loaned him to the Kings for the 2016 Super Rugby competition. He played 800 minutes for the Kings and says he soaked up priceless knowledge and experience.
“I learned a great deal in playing those 10 games. Consistent game time against top opposition was an incredible teacher,” he says.
“The Kings was a big learning curve and it made me appreciate being a part of the Sharks set-up,” he said.
“When I returned to the Sharks for the (2016) Currie Cup, I felt I was ready to take a step up after some tough times. I had done an invaluable apprenticeship.”