THROW BACK! Liam Messam was on the cover of UNO Waikato back in autumn 2006. Read our cover story in issue 40 to find out what he’s up to now. And read the original feature below. Enjoy!
WORDS CHARLES MARTIN IMAGES MICHAEL POLE / ADRIENNE POTTS
Liam Justin Messam was plucked straight from school at Rotorua Boys’ High, into the New Zealand sevens squad. He’s been a full time professional rugby player ever since. At 21 years of age, the Waikato sporting hero was a member of the New Zealand sevens team which won gold at Melbourne.
I have met a few top rugby personalities during m9re than three decades as a broadcaster, and this one didn’t seem too different. Well set-up physically, polite on first acquaintance, appropriately modest and unpretentious, and media savvy – careful with comment during interviews. I wondered what may be different about this Waikato and Chiefs flanker and successful gold medal winning sevens player.
Initial impressions were good. Liam Messam greeted me at the front door of his home in Hamilton with a warm open smile and a firm handshake. But as we sat down to talk about life and living I soon detected a wicked and well camouflaged sense of humour as he indulged in the age-old sport of many top rugby players – ‘taking the piss’ out of some of his close mates through supposedly innocent and serious replies to the journalist’s
questions. But that’s OK – par for the course.
He described Eric Rush as an inspiration, “
even though he eats all the food and lollies and stuff”; and although he was not too interes
ted in news media reports and game coverage himself, some people such as Sevens veteran Valence “likes cutting out pictures of himself and sticking them up on the wall” (This referred to Amasio Valence, the only male New Zealander to win gold medals in three successive Commonwealth Games). He had some nice and pretty funny observations about many of his close friends hidden underneath relatively innocuous responses during our chat.
Liam was born in Blenheim at the top of the South Island and adopted into a family of four sisters and three brothers by Wanda and Lewis Messam – a Dutch Mum and an English soccer mad father. The personal circumstances of this adopted and happy family were well canvassed during a recent television profile of Liam. Suffice to say there’s a lot of warmth towards brothers, sisters and parents, he gets huge support from his rather rugby-ignorant Mum and Dad, and likes spending time with his family as a ‘favourite way to relax’.
“When Mum and Dad come to a game of rugby with me it’s hard to concentrate because I spend most of the time answering their questions about what’s happening and why the players are doing this or that, and what the ref blew his whistle for – and
sometimes I can’t answer that one! But they try their best to learn about the game and they support me 100 percent, although I wouldn’t exactly call them great rugby supporters”.
His schooling was at Rotorua for primary, intermediate and secondary education where he was an average student, and a member of the New Zealand secondary schools champion First XV. “I enjoyed school but I wish I had learned a lot more.
I was into sport at an early age, and because of Dad’s English background all of us boys, including me, played soccer. We made the rep teams and my younger brother is still in the Waikato provincial side. I also played and enjoyed rugby league and I still think it’s a great game to watch – sometimes a lot more entertaining than some of the rugby matches! I was also in a crew that won the national secondary schools hoe waka (that’s the canoes without outriggers) title three years in a row”.
FAVOURITES AND FRIENDS
When you get on to the favouritism list, Liam has Catholic tastes in most things. He likes music, in particular New Zealand bands like Adeaze, plus pop, R&B, reggae – the lot! He also plays the guitar and learnt the piano, which he still plays on the nice big instrument back at his parents place in Rotorua. But he reckons he can’t sing.
I didn’t believe that part of the answer!
“My favourite place would be Te Kaha. I love the fishing and swimming there, and it’s always sunny. My favourite ground is of course the Westpac Stadium in Hamilton – love the crowd so close and intimate – and for overseas destinations, it is Dubai without any doubt – it’s choice. Over a period of less than a fortnight they staged the World Cup Sevens tournament, demonstration games by the Brazilian soccer team, a golf tournament featuring Tiger Woods, and motor racing with Michael Schumacher”, he said.
“How effective is money? And gold’s cheap there too so I can buy some gifts for my Mum! I have a brother living in Dubai who still has about another year to go in his teaching contract. His daughter, aged about eight, is a really good soccer player but girls are not supposed to play sports over there. I can see my niece in the future going to the United States and playing in a top team, where women’s football is really huge”.
He also has a round of golf from time to time with a couple of high-stepping backs, Waikato rugby reps Loki Crichton and Dave Hill, both on respectable low handicaps. “I whack the ball quite well off the tee, but my short game’s not great. I spend a fair bit of time looking for my ball in the bushes – never mind”.
On the Chief’s website, his favourite food is listed as taro and chop suey.
But I don’t think it matters much because Liam loves all food, which probably explains his nickname. Everyone in rugby has a pet name and he is better known as ‘Hungry’. It came about when he was living with that very good utility back Keith Lowen and they went out to lunch. Messam obviously impressed with the range and amount of food he ate. He’s been known as ‘Hungry’ ever since.
Liam’s closest friends are still the guys he started playing rugby with as youngsters at about 12 years of age in Rotorua –
Steven Setephano and Willie Ripia, who was recently called up as a first-five replacement for the Highlanders.
“We grew up together, played rugby together over many years, and remain the very best of friends”, he said. Loyalty is an important part of his character.
His hobbies are not too complicated. He drives a big red Ford in line with sponsorship arrangements and has his own Ford truck in the garage, which seems more in
keeping with the guy that is Liam Messam. There’s golf, swimming and fishing too. But the most indulged in pursuit off the rugby field is electronic rugby using the Xbox for ongoing Bledisloe Cup series with flat-mate and fellow ‘loosie’ Sione Lauaki – always best of three. “I beat Wax by about 30 points usually” he said, with yet another of those sly digs that Liam hopes will make the final printed copy!
THE DAILY GRIND
‘A Day in the Life Of’ smacks of constant training and hard work, broken from time to time with talks to school assemblies or news media interviews, which are usually on Tuesday public training days.
He speaks cautiously about the news media, obviously well aware that they will always have the last word, but describes
New Zealand sports journalists as generally pretty well informed, and ‘reasonable’
His typical day starts with training after breakfast from about
9 o’clock and may include gym work, defensive training, or whatever is provided on the schedule for that particular day.
The former Chief’s hooker, Greg Smith, is now the Player Development Manager and he organises the implementation of the New Zealand Rugby development programme. This session starts at about 11.00am through until lunch at 12.30 and covers ‘life after rugby’ topics – finance and investment, development of assets, employment opportunities and so on. Then it’s more training in the afternoon from about 3 o’clock, dinner, and some time out – usually another Bledisloe Cup series.
“The Player Development Programme is an awesome initiative by New Zealand Rugby because the life of a professional player is getting shorter and shorter. It has reduced from about ten years to between two and five. Players then usually head off to play professional club football overseas to bank a bit of extra cash, and that’s it. Greg helps us all to prepare for and think about the future and what we’re going to do at the end of a fairly short professional rugby career”, he said.
“I’m not sure what’s in store for me. I’ve thought about a career in the health and fitness field, or in building, but maybe neither of these – possibly a bit more education, like a business management course, and then we’ll see. Meantime I have my present career to train for and worry about involving Waikato, the Chiefs and the Sevens. Right now I am a full-time professional rugby player, but you’ve go to look ahead and plan”.
Injuries haven’t played a major part in Liam’s career, but he acknowledges that they are an accepted part of rugby these days and something to be considered when thinking about the future. He has a wonky knee and has had some cartilage removed, but otherwise he’s been fairly free from major problems.
When I suggested that some of the older brigade might question the methods employed today to keep fit, including perhaps an over-emphasis on gym work making players more susceptible to certain types of injuries, he looked at me in a rather old-fashioned and patronising way!
“Rugby is a very different game these days. It’s faster, you’ve got to be fitter, and there’s a different sort of fitness needed.
You also have to be in top physical condition to play for 80 minutes, especially against some of those big South African forwards. I think we go about things in the right way”, he smiled, perhaps a little condescendingly.
I pushed my luck even further and asked if the Crusaders had any special secret formula?
“No, I don’t think so. That franchise can always field a very well balanced and well drilled team every game. They play as a team despite some top stars, they concentrate on having good defence, and they have an excellent coach – nothing special, nothing secret”, he said.
The recent gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne was a clear career highlight.
Although Tafai Ioasa captained this side, Liam was the Sevens captain in the IRB series last year. He tends to exercise the role with few words and without fuss, letting his actions do the talking. This ‘leading from the front’ approach certainly worked well with the team.
“Yes, there was some new blood in the Commonwealth Games side and Titch (coach Gordon Tietjens) is great at identifying fresh talent. But after only a couple of days we were operating well together and the squad was already like a family – they are an awesome bunch of guys. In the end we didn’t care who we played in the final – the Aussies, Fiji or the Poms. We felt so ready, so confident to go out and do the thing. That’s what we did – we won – a great day”!
Unfortunately the celebrations were delayed and the buzz killed a bit when no fewer than four members of the team were hauled off after the final for drug testing – a rather long, drawn out process that went on into the early morning. Apparently this is par for the course these days and similar numbers of players were also tested from other top teams.
Liam speaks with obvious respect about Gordon Tietjens, his eye for new talent, his coaching ability and his understanding of Polynesian cultures.
“He pushes you to the limit, but when push comes to shove, it’s not so much the Polynesian Way as the Titch Way. He can be very single minded! Then there’s Rushy (Eric Rush) and I know everyone over here understands that he is a lot more than the ‘water boy’. He is in fact the inspirational factor, and sometimes that buffer or link – or both – between Titch and the players”. He also mentioned the need, when selecting a Sevens squad, to maintain the obligatory quota by having a couple of white boys in the squad – at which point I thought I felt a large tug on my right leg.
RAPPORT WITH KIDS
Liam speaks warmly about his dealings and rapport with young kids. He visits schools a lot and obviously relates well to youngsters, maybe because, as he said “I’m really a big kid myself”. It’s really role model stuff, although he doesn’t put it that bluntly, but the clear message is: “Here I am… at 21 years of age a professional rugby player, a member of the Waikato and Chiefs teams, former captain of the New Zealand Sevens side, and a gold medalist at the Commonwealth Games. What are you guys going to do with yourselves”?
He doesn’t drink (“I just don’t like it”) he doesn’t smoke, and he is not into other drugs. There is also a tasteful crucifix around his neck, but he doesn’t parade the religious bit.
He tells kids to stay on at school because that’s going to be useful later in life when looking for jobs, to set goals, and to work hard. Liam doesn’t overdo the alcohol and drugs message at the risk of turning some kids off too soon from what he is saying, but it is obvious that the role model standing up there just chatting about the opportunities for those who want to grasp them works well: “I did it – so can you”.
When talking to youngsters he casts his mind back not too many years to secondary school days in Rotorua when: “I was picked in the top rugby team, although I wasn’t always the best player. Occasionally the best players were unfortunately also the most difficult. They had gone off the tracks, were into booze or drugs,
got into a bit of trouble, and as a result missed out on selection for the First XV. Sometimes life is all about environment, circumstances, opportunities, and lucky breaks”.
Oh yes – Liam Messam is the first to acknowledge that luck plays a big part in many of our lives, including his own.