The 36-year-old recently returned to New Zealand on the back of a short stint in France and, following his final match of the year with Waikato, has revealed some of the struggles that professional rugby players are forced to navigate during their careers.
Writing for The XV, Messam delved into his most painful losses with the All Blacks and how they helped him grow as both a player and person.
“When you don’t lose often, you feel the losses even harder,” Messam said. “Two of my most vivid memories playing for the All Blacks are two games we didn’t win.
“The first, I’ve written about before. It was the 2014 game in South Africa when I gave away a penalty right near the end which they kicked to steal the match.”
In an earlier column for The XV, Messam revealed that Springboks centurion Schalk Burger was one of the first players to approach him following the game and encouraged him to keep his chin up.
Steve Hansen, who was New Zealand coach at the time, also consoled his charge.
“I remember straight after the game, Steve Hansen came over and put his arm around me and gave me a big hug and just said ‘Na it’s not on you, it’s not your fault.’ You could probably tell from my vibe that I wasn’t feeling the best after that game.
“That penalty I conceded against South Africa was just three points out of 20-odd they scored but in the time and the moment, you forget that. You feel like you’ve let your team and your country down.”
Messam’s relationship with Hansen wasn’t always quite as positive, however, with the All Black saying that during his formative years with the team, he sometimes felt Hansen was picking on him.
In 2009, Messam was selected to start at the back of the scrum against France in just his third test match. The French shocked everyone by nabbing a 27-22 victory in Dunedin and 25-year-old Messam had a performance to forget.
“A lot of things didn’t go well for me – I fell off a few tackles, I probably didn’t put in enough back-to-back efforts – and I can remember it so clearly,” said Messam.
“I got ripped a new one by the coaches afterwards. I remember Steve used to be really, really tough on me, but I understand why he was now. He was just trying to help me be a better player.
“At the time, I was like, ‘This guy hates me. This guy is always picking on me.’ But I eventually understood it. He was the forwards coach then and he was just trying to help get me to the right level and figure out what I needed to do to be an All Black.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 25, 2020
While Messam wasn’t sighted again for the All Blacks until their end of year tour, he used the performance – and the response from coaches, the media and fans – to motivate himself to improve and ultimately finished his international career with 43 caps to his name.
While he credits that game and the experience for how it lit a fire in his belly, he’s also acutely aware of how big an impact negative criticism and comments can impact a player and their wider circle.
“Family members read the papers and hear talk on the radio and whatnot. It’s really tough on them,” he said. “I think the public can forget that we’re also human and we have family and friends that always have our back and support us, but they go through the hard times too.”
Messam drew parallels between his experiences and what some current All Blacks and their families may be going through now following two straight losses.
“The All Blacks will hear a little bit of what’s been thrown around about them but it’s their loved ones that are really taking the brunt of the chatter – and the wider public probably don’t realise that.
“But I’ve got faith we’ll bounce back. Losses are the best learning opportunities and I think this young All Blacks team will have taken plenty of lessons out of the past few weeks.”
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