Liam Messam: Sevens star who broke the mould

Thursday November 02, 2017 Written by Published in Rugby Union
Liam Messam is in Rarotonga to promote men's health, and also particpate in the Raro Rugby 7's Liam Messam is in Rarotonga to promote men's health, and also particpate in the Raro Rugby 7's

It seems a little strange to think now that one of New Zealand rugby’s most established stars, Liam Messam, was once looked upon as simply a Sevens specialist.

 

The rampaging forward has more than 40 All Black appearances to his name and is the most capped player in the history of the Chiefs. But few would have bet on that outcome early in Messam’s career.

“I was able to start my career with Sevens, and it was a great platform for me when I was younger, but three or four years into my career people would say I’m just a Sevens specialist” he recalls.

“Perhaps it's because I did like running out in the backs, but there's nothing wrong with that,” he adds with a wry smile.

In the early days of Sevens, most of the players who represented New Zealand at both codes were backs, stars such as Christian Cullen, Eric Rush and Jonah Lomu.

But Messam was one of the first to break the mould, to shed the perception that the only job for a forward was in and around a ruck, and his approach has paved the way for a number of dynamic flankers that feature for the All Blacks.

“I worked hard at my game to try and shed that label as just a Sevens player, and now I’ve got rid of it I can’t go back to it,” he laughs.

Messam, who captained the New Zealand Sevens team to an IRB title when he was just 21, has seen the sport change over the years.

“It’s a lot more physical,” he says. “Now there are much bigger men running around than there used to be.”

And the sport has changed in other ways, he adds. “The women’s game of rugby Sevens has just taken off completely, especially with it being an Olympic sport.

“It gives people an opportunity to be an Olympian, and it gives a lot of countries a chance to go to the Olympics, which they may not have had a chance to go to.

“I just enjoyed the way I played. Sevens gave me an outlet to express myself, and I was lucky enough to bring that to the 15s game too.”

When speaking of some of the athletes in the All Blacks now, Messam can’t help but marvel at how talented some of the players are.

“You’ve got guys like Ardie Savea, Vaea Fifita and they can run just as quick as a back. And when you see that try Fifita scored against Argentina, you realise that’s a loose forward.”

One of the things that Messam values about Sevens is the relative parity of the sport, even if it means New Zealand aren’t as dominant as they are in the 15-man game.

“With Sevens, anyone can win on the day. At the Olympics, there were three or four teams that were in contention for the gold.

“Even Japan, they were in for a shot at a medal. And that’s what I love about the Sevens, and that’s also what makes it a great spectator sport.”

The 33-year-old is also uniquely equipped with an insight into both of the national setups, and says there is a surprising difference between the All Blacks Sevens and the All Blacks.

“I think because I first started at Sevens I didn’t really see it too much until I went to Super Rugby, and then onto the All Blacks.

“The All Blacks are the pinnacle, so when you are with the team, all you need to do is your job. That’s all you need to worry about, because everything else is taken care of.

“You might call that a bit precious, but you’ve just got to turn up with a mouthguard and an orange, and everything else is taken care of.

“Whereas for Sevens, you have to worry about small things like your laundry, where and what time you’re going to the gym.”

While he expects the Sevens set up to change, as legendary coach Gordon Tietjens departs for Samoa, the foundation should remain intact.

“I don’t know Craig Laidlaw (the new NZ Sevens coach), but what I’ve heard so far, from what they’ve done, it’s been good. A lot of team building, and a few of the old heads are still running around.

“And for Samoa, they can expect a lot of discipline and healthy eating under ‘Titch’.”

The work ethic and skills that he picked up in his Sevens career have stayed with him, and the loose forward can see the similarities between himself when he was young, and the young guys that he now plays with.

“I think as you get older in your career, the longer you go, you prepare the same way every week.

“Some young guys might get really intense and try and train a bit harder, going a bit extra, but the older you get, you learn ways of dealing with that pressure.

“When I was younger, I’d put on my headphones and say ‘don’t talk to me for like five hours, and I ‘d just be staring, head-butting the wall.

“Some of the younger guys, you’ll see them getting really intense, so me being the ‘elder statesman’ I can give them a bit of wisdom, tell them to chill out, because sometimes all that focus isn’t that good for you.

“It can put them off their game, so I want them to have a clear head and have some fun.

“Having kids has helped that, because I’m basically daddy day care now until kick off. I just joke around with the boys now, but I am careful that I don’t ruin others’ preparations.

“And because I’ve prepared during the whole week, I know that the game is when I can go out and have fun.”

Although the self-described “elder statesman” is turning 34 next year, he does not think it’s time to retire just yet.

“It’s getting a bit scary because my mates I grew up playing with, people like Piri Weepu, are starting to retire now.

“They say that you’ll know when it’s time to go, and there’s only so many meetings, so many games that you can have.

“But the Air New Zealand crew offered me the role as the baggage man, so that’s a back-up.

“And I’m big about youth, and being active, helping people, and my little brother set up a Messam Fitness page online, so that keeps us busy.

“But hopefully I can still get a few more seasons out of these legs.”

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