Out of position and out of this world, Springbok virtuoso Lukhanyo Am lit up Ellis Park in a losing effort against the All Blacks on Saturday, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Trailing 15-0 after a poor start, South Africa fought back valiantly to lead 23-21 with 15 minutes to play, but in the end, they couldn’t avoid an All Black backlash as the under-fire visitors scored two late tries to pull off a shock 35-23 win.
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Look at Springbok masterpieces in recent years and odds are you’ll find Am’s signature at the bottom of them. The cool-as-you-like offload to Makazole Mapimpi against England that led to South Africa’s first-ever try in a World Cup final and mind-blowing behind-the-back ball that saw Damian de Allende dot down against New Zealand are two of the supremely-skilled visionary’s best works.
Am’s an unassuming artist who, forced out of his regular outside centre berth and onto the right wing in a reshuffled backline brought about by an early head knock to Jesse Kriel, painted a broader picture of his brilliance.
The impact he had on attack was both undeniable and unbelievable. He cut the All Blacks to shreds with scintillating heroics powered by humble self-belief that saw him score a try he had no right to as he beat both Caleb Clark and Will Jordan in a phone booth.
It came at a vital time as well, just before halftime, and sparked the Springboks to life as they went on to close a 15-point gap to five going into the break.
He’d almost scored earlier with his hard work off the ball making him the first to provide support to Pieter-Steph du Toit after he’d intercepted and galloped downfield. The break he made and spiralling long pass to Mapimpi would’ve been a strong contender for try of the tournament had it not been disallowed due to obstruction and he had a hand in Damian Willemse’s near-try too.
He also won an aerial battle and made an important clean to protect the pill after a kick-return from Mapimpi. All in all, Am made an unrivalled 137 metres, four clean breaks and beat five defenders in eight carries. Only the most gifted ball players can switch positions and produce such a superb showing and there’s a strong case to be made that Am is the best in the world right now.
Another multi-skilled phenom in his prime, the versatile Willemse was left with the most work following Kriel’s departure and he did it all with aplomb.
Starting at fullback, he made a try-saving tackle and was yellow-carded for holding on but it was a gamble that paid off as the Springboks kept the old enemy scoreless during the 10 minutes Willemse was in the bin.
Upon his return, he alternated between flyhalf and inside centre with Handre Pollard and consistently punched over the gain line in the No 12 channel. He and Willie le Roux were the primary playmakers with their vision and exemplary distribution and the wonderful missile Willemse put Mapimpi in with was out of the top drawer.
He made another crucial tackle on Rieko Ioane in the final 10 minutes and 12 in total, a Springbok-high along with Siya Kolisi, Lood de Jager and Frans Malherbe.
As mentioned, Le Roux injected danger into the backline when he replaced Kriel early on. A seasoned and skilful scanner, he exploited and created space with prodigious passing, including a try assist for Am and two other near-try-scoring collaborations with the Sharks skipper.
Malcolm Marx and Jasper Wiese brought blunt-force physicality and world-class work rate off the bench, the former snatching a tremendous turnover that resulted in Mapimpi’s try.
However, Pollard was on point and played a pivotal role in the hosts hauling the visitors in before the All Blacks responded with a late flurry. He scored 13 points in a goal-kicking masterclass, slotting five out of five including conversions from both touchlines and a 55-metre penalty goal.
He was also accurate with his penalty kicks into the corners, gaining good ground, and had some deft touches with ball in hand. It’s great to see he’s regained his mojo.
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