Rugby: Champions managing workload of Messam

By Kris Shannon

Liam Messam leads from the front and the Chiefs veteran has plenty of faith in the 
team's young recruits. Photo / Stephen Barker
Liam Messam leads from the front and the Chiefs veteran has plenty of faith in the team's young recruits. Photo / Stephen Barker

As the bodies of his Chiefs teammates drop around him, Liam Messam remains impervious to injury.

The 29-year-old has missed only two games in the last five seasons of Super Rugby and has played more minutes (3916, or nearly 66 hours) than anyone in the competition during the previous three campaigns.

His steadying hand guided a Chiefs team featuring seven debutants to a battling win over the Crusaders last weekend, and the co-captain will again be required to stabilise his side tonight.

The Chiefs made six changes for the visit of the Highlanders and the disruption meant Messam moved to No8 for the encounter between the New Zealand conference's only week one winners. But wherever the All Black is named, he is guaranteed to lead from the front and a pretty good bet to be present when the final whistle blows.

It's no coincidence that he and Aaron Cruden - an ever-present pair during Dave Rennie's reign - are captaining the Chiefs in their search for a hat-trick of titles.

Such solidity on the field is essential given the many moving parts around them, but Messam felt the work done outside the lines was of equal importance in moulding the youngsters, recruits and returning veterans into a cohesive unit.

"We try to have our own culture and environment here that whoever puts on the jersey can do the job," he said. "The leaders were outstanding in stepping up last weekend, but I thought the young guys really stood up.

"That's all we're asking of them this week. We've got some new guys coming again this week and we just want them to keep those standards high."

Those featuring in their first game of the season have a blueprint in the Crusaders match and an example in Messam to know just what's required.

The Chiefs, hampered by a poor set piece, failed to free up much ball for their backs last week but they defended stoutly and finished with a tackle success rate of 90.3 per cent, with Messam making seven successful tackles.

It must be tempting to write his name in pen on the lineup card for every remaining game this season but the Chiefs are wary of asking too much. They know the demands facing top-level players and a rare day off may prevent Messam from joining so many of his teammates on the injury list.

"Success comes in having your leaders play consistently," said forwards coach Tom Coventry. "But we're conscious that we can't continue to use them for every match, and that's something that we're going to have to consider over the next six or seven months."

If the idea of a Chiefs team without Messam seems unthinkable, there are other approaches. A lighter load in training is one strategy, keeping their captain's presence close while allowing his body a break.

"If you ask any of them about playing versus training, they'd always want to play and not train, which is sometimes a good compromise," Coventry said. "Maybe they can be offering from the sidelines, rather than necessarily having to be in the battle all the time."

Messam is expecting another battle against a Highlanders side who played the Blues off the park for 40 minutes last week, but he's aware of the reward that will arrive from producing another full 80-minute effort.

"We can put ourselves in a great position before the bye," he said. "But we're not really worried about the result; we're more worried about our performance. That game against the Crusaders was probably won on heart more than our performance, so we're looking to be better."

- APNZ

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