Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Chiefs' role in transition

Liam Messam has cast aside his sevens habits for a whole new ball game, thanks to the way his Super 15 team moulded his skills

Liam Messam could make the No 6 jersey his own for the rest of the tour if he continues to impress. Photo / Getty Images
Liam Messam could make the No 6 jersey his own for the rest of the tour if he continues to impress. Photo / Getty Images

A little like Lady Macbeth, Liam Messam has found it's not so easy to rub out stains from his past.

Unkindly, his prolonged association with the New Zealand sevens team has been viewed as a taint on his career: it instilled in him an appetite for open spaces and high risks.

The outrageous has always come easily to him; the bone-crunching graft and explosive ruthlessness required to become an international blindside has often been beyond his reach.

The most skilled loose forward to emerge in New Zealand since Zinzan Brooke, Messam was held prisoner by his instincts. His potential appeared destined to go unfulfilled - the cappuccino had too much milk and not enough coffee.

That was until this year. Something changed in Messam and he took all the froth out of his game. Whatever wasn't getting through before suddenly was and the propensity to fire a mis-pass, or to roam too wide, or to disappear altogether - that all stopped.

Instead, Messam became direct, confrontational, relentless and durable.

The sevens player within has been cast out and the exorcism has seen him installed as the All Blacks' first-choice No 6. How it happened is vital for a sceptical rugby public to understand: no one believes in miracle conversions such as this and it's imperative to be convinced that the driving factors are credible and sustainable. So what's behind the breakthrough?

"I have thought about this as I have been asked this question a lot this year," Messam says. "I think the way the Chiefs played this year was pretty basic, pretty straightforward, especially for the forwards.

"They wanted us to get over the gain-line and win that contact area so I had to change my game a bit and get a little tighter to my forwards. It worked and that gave me another weapon in my bag."

That's it - simple as that. The All Blacks run with a similar brief and he's further aided by the security of knowing that all those around him, particularly his loose-forward chums Richie McCaw and Kieran Read, will do their jobs.

Messam is now on the cusp of securing the All Black No 6 jersey for the remainder of the tour and probably beyond if he can deliver in Rome. His instructions are to be physical, own the contact, be aggressive, imposing and accurate. The same instructions were offered to Victor Vito, playing at No 8, in Edinburgh and Messam's one true rival for the jersey delivered all that was asked and maybe a little more. The onus is now on Messam to respond, but that excites more than it threatens.

He'd missed the original selection in June, but was called in as injury cover and started the third test against Ireland knowing he needed something special.

"I didn't expect to play that game even after I was called into Hamilton," he recalls. "To play in front of my family, I really wanted to show everyone what I could do and I knew it had been a while since I had played in the black jersey and it worked for me."

His performances since have been consistently good and looking back he can see that he has made the transition - that he no longer carries any sense of being a sevens player.

"I guess I had that tag for a while that I was just a sevens player," he says. "Sevens gave me the platform for where I am today and I am grateful for that. But after I got a bit heavier and I realised I didn't want to do Titch's [coach Gordon Tietjens'] 80s/60s/40s any more and I knuckled down into 15s.

"I think there is a stage in every player's career when they come to 15s from sevens that they realise they are one and not the other."

Liam's long haul

Waikato caps: 84
Chiefs caps: 96
All Black caps: 17
Sevens: Two-time Commonwealth Games gold medallist (2006-10)

- NZ Herald

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