Liam Messam is keeping the faith that a greenish Toulon side can haul itself up the French Top 14 standings while he adjusts to the style and sheer grind of rugby in the Hexagon.
The 34-year-old former All Blacks loose forward has shown solid form, mostly at No 8, as Toulon has sputtered to 12th on the log, with just three wins, not to mention a winless opening two rounds of the European Champions Cup.
“It’s a long season. The final is on June 15. People see the results and the table, but we’ve competed hard in all our games and given ourselves opportunities to win. We just have to take them. That’s an experience thing,” says Messam.
“We are not too far away from the top six. We just have to grind away, trust the process and work hard every day. It’s a new, young team. Toulon has a proud history but lost 12-14 players from last season and the core of those were older players. So we are starting afresh.”
Toulon is clearly not the ‘Galacticos’ of Tana Umaga’s days at Toulon, when the club was seeking to burst out of the second tier.
This weekend’s away match at Bordeaux looms as hugely important, then, for RCT. Messam may come up against his old Chiefs teammate, three-quarter Seta Tamanivalu. Other Kiwis at Toulon are Malakai Fekitoa, Julian Savea and Brian Alainu’uese.
Messam has enjoyed the tutelage of his old Argentine 15s and sevens adversary Juan-Martin Fernandez-Lobbe, now one of Toulon’s assistant coaches.
“He’s been awesome. I’ve known Juan for a long time, since back in 2003-04. He’s a legend here and his philosophy allows us to bring that flair into our game.”
While the French season is a grind, there is scope for breaks. He nipped home at the start of the international window, finding time to visit the grave of a fallen comrade, Sione Lauaki.
There was also another brief, albeit unwanted, holiday. Messam was red carded for a high tackle against Montpellier last month. Handed a four-week suspension, it was reduced on appeal.
“I can understand what they are trying to do in France because at the start of the season a player (Louis Fajfrowski of Aurillac) died after a head-high tackle. They are coming down hard on that. We are all about player welfare, but contact to the head is a really touchy subject here,” says Messam.
The tackle looks bad at first glance but the first contact was with the shoulders, then slipping up. Ironically, fellow Kiwis Jerome Kaino and Loni Uhila also copped short bans for dangerous tackles around the same time.
Toulon owner, the flamboyant Mourad Boudjellal, went into bat for Messam, helping reduce his ban. That is the sort of loyalty he seeks to repay.
“Everyone has a view on Mourad, but he’s been fantastic to work with this season. He cares deeply about RCT. He’s given Patrice (Collazo) the green light to get this team going,” says Messam of a man not averse to telling players to their face what he thinks of their form.
While Messam is far from fluent in French after just four months, he is loving the whole scene, from the food with which he needs to be circumspect, to the warm weather, to the rugby folk. There are worse places to live in this world.
“The people of Toulon are amazing. It’s a mad rugby town, I thought Waikato Stadium was an awesome place to play when full, but this is next level. No matter how well, or not, we are going, the support is always there. They chant for the full 80 minutes.”
In 2016, some may have thought Messam was running on old legs. He was trying to give the Rio Olympics a nudge, but his body was not responding. It says plenty about the mana that he brings to his rugby that he uncorked a superb season for the Chiefs in 2018, one of his best in several years. It was important for him to finish his long New Zealand career on a personal high.
And while former All Blacks hooker Anton Oliver struggled to connect with the Toulon jersey in his short 2007-08 stint, Messam is determined to leave his mark in the south of France.
“The standards I set for myself, I take wherever I go. RCT will probably be the last club I play for, so I will pour all my energy into helping them succeed and building a culture they can be proud of.”
In other news:
Sign up to our mailing list here and we’ll keep you up to the minute with weekly updates from the world of rugby.