Lukhanyo Am tackles his worst fears

The Sharks captain started the year as a world champion, his challenge to lead the Durban franchise to Super Rugby glory. But Covid-19 had other ideas, forcing Am to contemplate a grim new reality.

For the first time in perhaps his entire life, Lukhanyo Am is unnerved.

The Sharks captain and Rugby World Cup-winning Springbok centre is usually the epitome of cool, surveying the lay of a rugby field with enviable calm. But now, with the rugby world in lockdown along with the rest of the planet in an attempt to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, Am admits that the very necessary confinement for containment’s sake feels like something out of a movie.

“It’s very scary, especially when you see how quickly it is spreading around the world. When we first heard of it, the virus was just something in China,” he said. “Now it’s on our doorstep, and it is completely understandable why we have had to stop everything.”

He and his teammates are keeping busy by watching movies and television series, playing video games and doing home workouts. This is wildly different from their normal time off, he said. 

Some players are hardwired for the daily intensity of a contact sport. Others respond well to the sense of community in the changing room, working towards a common goal with 40 other brothers. They’re all adjusting mentally in different ways to the sudden halt in routine and to being isolated, even if the bigger picture around the world has provided a real sense of perspective.

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As their leader, it is one of Am’s duties to check on the individuals in the Sharks unit. “We have a strong leadership group, but we also have no hierarchy,” he said. “If you look around our team, there is no one who acts like a senior player or expects to be treated differently. It’s one team, and that’s why it works.”

Sea change at the Shark Tank 

There were whispers of discontent at the Shark Tank barely a year ago, but Am said there is no such rancour in the squad of 2020. “We have started afresh. We have a lot of new faces in the group, a new coach and really good energy.”

A glimpse of the Sharks’ unity was evident during their tour of Australasia, when playmaker Curwin Bosch lost his grandmother. She had a profound impact on his life and he went home for the funeral.

The team “were all thinking of Curwin” and on his return, Makazole Mapimpi handed him a try against the Melbourne Rebels that Mapimpi could have scored himself to complete a hat-trick. “There was a picture taken during that game, of all of us together. I think that summed up the unity we have in this team,” said Am.

Though he is a man of few and quiet words, Am’s ascension came as no surprise to those in and around the team. As outside centre, he is already tasked with an organisational role in defence. He is the final link between the midfield and the flock of flyers with which the Sharks are blessed out wide. By all accounts, he is the centre of attention, but the added attention has not affected him much, he said.

“I’ve always had to be a leader in my position and I realised that quite a few players look to me in the team. When I got the call from the coach, I was a bit surprised. But when it sunk in, I was really excited and proud to lead this team.”

He credits the Sharks’ management team for what is happening on the field, saying players have been given a licence to play the moment. 

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“All the coaches are aligned to the same goal and I think you’ve now started to see us living it out on the field. There is a lot of backing for us as players, and that takes away the pressure,” he said.

Without the constraints, the Sharks have produced some breathtaking running rugby, with an array of attacking weapons all over the park. “The boys have been having fun,” Am said with a chuckle. 

Speaking from Durban, the 26-year-old added that the Sharks had gone into their final game of the Super Rugby campaign thinking it was business as usual. They had no idea it would be their last game for the foreseeable future. They had just come off a fantastic road trip, with three victories and a style of rugby that illuminated the competition and saw them rise to the top of the table.

“It was good to get back home, and we had obviously come off a great run of form. We were looking forward to that Stormers match and then playing a few more matches in front of our home fans,” said Am.

World Cup glory to uncertainty 

Naturally, there was disappointment initially when it was confirmed that their season would be put on hold. But personal frustration soon gave way to sobering perspective as the world watched the coronavirus cut a swathe through Italy and the rest of Europe.

“We had no idea that it could become what it has,” said Am. “Sure, we had good momentum as a team and we were having fun, but this affects everything.”

Indeed, the world became a very different place in a few short weeks, as countries implemented any means necessary to contain the rapid spread of the virus. It is a completely different picture to the culmination of what Am said were the greatest moments of his career so far, towards the end of an unforgettable 2019.

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Just four months ago, Am and the rest of victorious Boks were the toast of South Africa, after their amazing run at the Rugby World Cup in Japan. They went on an extensive victory parade that took in parts of the Eastern Cape he calls home, the streets that forged the street smarts he exudes on the field.

“It was crazy! So much joy and pride. I remember picking out familiar faces in the crowd, and seeing how happy and proud they were of what we had achieved. It was mad,” he said.

At the World Cup, he exhibited such startling clarity of mind that significant column inches around the world and trends on social media were dedicated to his nonchalant flick of the ball to Mapimpi for the Springboks’ crucial try in the final against England.

“It was second nature,” he said. “I didn’t let the occasion get into my head, and I have realised that I tend to play better when the stakes are bigger. I am usually reserved before big games, because I know that is when you just have to bring it. It’s just the way I am.”

Am listens to amagwijo before games and “that puts me in the right space. They mean a lot to me, and have been part of my rugby for as long as I can remember.” It is a phenomenon that has spread among South Africa’s rugby-watching public and Am said its impact was growing in the changing room.

“At both the Sharks and the Boks, we have very diverse bunches. And that means people do different things to get ready for a big game. There is a lot of mutual respect, but amagwijo have become more and more popular. It might surprise some, but a guy like André Esterhuizen loves igwijo before the game,” he revealed with relish.

Telepathic understanding 

Am, with the spirit of amagwijo no doubt humming in his head, had the composure to make the selfless pass during that World Cup final that ensured the try when others might have gone for personal glory. “I knew he [Mapimpi] would be outside, and it was a really special moment for him. I eventually forgave him for leaving me hanging with the high five after he scored,” he said.

When they brought the Webb Ellis Cup home, parading it through the streets of East London, Am couldn’t help but notice the sheer numbers that turned out for the Springboks’ victory parade. The East London airport could barely keep the masses out as they clamoured for a glimpse of their rugby heroes.

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“You knew it would be a lot, but I was amazed. We love our rugby in the Eastern Cape and that turnout was incredible. So many people.”

Fast-forward a few months and those streets are eerily silent now, with South Africa in the midst of a national lockdown. 

Am went back home to King William’s Town briefly before the national lockdown and he could sense the trepidation, even then. “It’s very concerning. If that virus is not contained and gets to our people…” His voice trailed away, the catastrophic prospect too grim to even articulate.

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