Am has all the qualities to be a great Springbok captain, says Odwa Ndungane
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A South African team on top of the Super Rugby standings near the halfway mark of the competition is healthy for the Springboks, but also pleasing for Springbok Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus is the emergence of Sharks captain Lukhanyo Am as a strong leader.
Am, at 26, is just two years younger than Siya Kolisi but even if Erasmus and coach Jacques Nienaber are not looking at Am from a succession point of view just yet, it will reassure them that in Am they have another string to their leadership bow.
Should Kolisi be injured, in Am they have South Africa’s second black captain waiting in the wings, and this would continue the massive unification impact Kolisi makes each time he takes the field.
Am’s long-time mentor at the Sharks, Odwa Ndungane - himself a Springbok - is certain the outside centre has the attributes to captain his country.
“If you look at how he has calmly led the Sharks, always setting the example with his effort, you have to say he could step up and captain the Springboks should Siya be unavailable,” said Ndungane, who took the young Am under his wing when he arrived at the Sharks from Border in 2016.
“To captain the Boks, you have to be comfortably the best player in your position in the country and Lukhanyo is one of the best outside centres in the world, so that is no problem, and for me captaincy is about being grounded, and that perfectly describes a player that has worked extremely hard to get to this point in his career.”
Ndungane would be referring to how Am took a longer, tougher path to the top than most Springboks. His climb up the ladder did not involve Craven Week and being headhunted to a top union.
He went to an unfashionable rugby school in De Vos Malan High in King Williams Town; he thereafter played a season of age group rugby for Border; then 20 games for the senior side; plus two matches for the Falcons in a short stay on the East Rand before being spotted by the Sharks.
But even then, he had barely arrived in Durban when he was loaned to the Southern Kings (2016) where he played 10 games and 800 minutes in a struggling side.
When Am rejoined the Sharks in 2017, he told me: “Consistent game time against top opposition was an incredible teacher,” he says. “We battled at the Kings and when I returned to Durban I felt I was ready to take a step up after some tough times.”
Ndungane says Am came back determined to make his mark in rugby.
“I had seen glimpses of his talent when he first came to us as a wing - I remember playing touch rugby with him at training and thinking “Wow, how did he make those passes?
“And since then, each season I have seen solid growth, the type you get from a player that is taking no short cuts and doing the extra yards, and now he is at the stage where he is confident in all aspects of his play.”
That positive growth resulted in Am being picked in Erasmus’s Bok side for the home series against England in 2018.
Fifteen Tests later, Am has been in just two losing Springbok sides (against the Pumas in Mendoza two years ago and the All Blacks in Yokohama) and is a World Cup winner.
When Am returned to the Sharks after that World Cup glory, Sean Everitt had no hesitation in making him captain for the 2020 season, a decision for which the coach feels thoroughly vindicated.
“Very much so ... Lukhanyo was my automatic choice and he has proved his ability to lead teams in the toughest of competitions,” Everitt said. “You won’t get any shouting or emotional team talks from him but, in his quiet way, he has got the team to follow him.
“He is an understated leader, much in the Gary Teichmann mould, and those leaders are often the strongest because when they do speak, the players listen and follow.
“In group forums, Lukhanyo is not outspoken, but behind the scenes he has quiet words with individuals and that unwillingness to make a fuss earns him respect.”
Everitt says that Am’s captaincy has been glowingly endorsed by Super Rugby’s referees.
“Lukhanyo’s relationship with referees is impeccable. We do a lot of previews and reviews of referees, and part of that is asking referees how our players behaved towards them, and Lukhanyo always comes through with flying colours.”