Liam Messam, one of the most decorated Chiefs players in Super Rugby history, is back in Waikato country and getting ready to play in this year’s Mitre 10 Cup. Despite the unquestionable experience that comes with the 179 Super Rugby caps to his name, however, Messam is confident that he has as much to gain from joining up with his old province as the side has to gain from his presence.

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Messam, who spent the last season with Toulon and previously represented Toshiba Brave Lupus in Japan, is returning to play for Waikato for the first time since 2015. The Super Rugby centurion departed New Zealand’s shores following the All Blacks’ success at the Rugby World Cup in England but still managed to play one and a half seasons with the Chiefs over the last four years.

While a Chiefs contract isn’t in the picture at this stage, Messam now has the opportunity to add to the 85 caps he earned representing Waikato over the first 13 years of his professional career.

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That’s not the sole motivation why the former All Black is back in the country, however.

“The main reason why I came home was to be a fulltime daddy day-care,” Messam told RugbyPass. “I’ve been part-time off and on with them being back here in NZ and me being in France, so it’s been awesome.

“I struggled at the start, the first few weeks, to get back into the swing of New Zealand life, but it’s been good – it’s awesome to be home and it’s been good for the soul and the heart to be back.”

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One of the things that Messam struggled with most in France was not being able to get along to events like cross-country days for his kids, but he’s working extra hard to make up for that now.

“All my Saturdays so far have been sports with my oldest with soccer. He surprised me, he’s bloody good. He absolutely loves football, can tell you everything, every player, what club they come from, what country, where they’re transferring to. He’s fully into it, he loves it, and I’ve enjoyed going down to watch. I’ve got no idea how to play football but I go out there and watch him. It’s been good for the soul.”

While Messam has been spending time with the children at home, he’s also been dealing with the young ones at work.

Mitre 10 Cup sides are now dominated by upcoming players – some straight out of school – and Messam’s been making the most of training with the likes of the Waikato Under 19 side.

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“They’ve been good, they work really hard, they train really hard,” Messam said of his young training mates. “At the start of it, they were pretty shy, wouldn’t really talk to me or look me in the eye. They’d put their head down and say hello but now there’s a bit of banter coming through and they’re getting a bit more comfortable, which is good to see.”

Not many teenagers get the opportunity to play with seasoned professionals – let alone the most capped Super Rugby player in the region – but Messam is getting just as much out of the deal.

“They’ve been amazing, I’ve really enjoyed training with them,” the 36-year-old said.

“People say all the time that I’ll have a good influence on these young fellas, but these young fellas are having a good influence on me too. They keep me on my toes and are keeping me feeling young.

“The best thing is when you’re my age and you’re at the gym and you’re outworking them and you’re pushing more weights. It’s the same if I’m beating them in the fitness or whatever, I give them a bit of stick that an old man is beating them.”

Despite being in the twilight years of his career and still playing rugby at an age that many players would never dream of continuing until, Messam is still as fit as he’s ever been – thanks to the good values that were instilled in him during his career with the New Zealand national sevens team.

“I pride myself on my work ethic and my effort and that. As you get older, it’s not a challenge, exactly, but it sort of motivates you, still competing with the young fellas. Especially in the gym, and on the footy field, and when we’re doing fitness and that, you’re sort of just like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll show you – I’ll show you what a 36-year-old can do.’ I might take a few more days to recover from it, but I still push myself.”

It’s not just the working with the youngsters that Messam appreciates – it’s also the men who are working tirelessly to achieve their dreams of playing for Waikato while still holding down work outside of rugby.

“The first week I was back, I went to early morning training, I think it was 6:30 or whatever. Once we’d done our weights and that, some of the boys walked out of the changing sheds in their high viz and their workboots,” Messam said. “That really humbled me straight away. These guys have to go to work after training so I’m just super grateful – I can’t complain at all.

“I’ve worked my ass off to be a full-time professional for my whole career but to see these boys walk out in their high viz and workbooks, I was just like ‘whoah’. It was a really humbling experience.”

With Waikato, Messam is linking back up with head coach Andrew Strawbridge, who has been an assistant with the Chiefs since 2012. He’s also got pretty strong connections with assistant coaches Nathan White and Ross Filipo, who he won NPC and Super Rugby titles with, respectively.

“I’ve been really impressed by those two,” Messam said of his former teammates. “They’re awesome coaches and even though they’re my mates, they’ve still got that level of professionalism that can still tell me where to go or what to do and still be my mate afterwards.

“I’ve been really impressed by both of them and how they’ve been able to transition from playing into coaching.”

While Messam won’t be able to achieve centurion status for Waikato this season, he’ll likely end 2020 just a few caps short. That’s not something that really motivates the former Chiefs captain, however.

“Since I’ve announced that I was coming back to play, everyone’s brought that up,” Messam said. “I don’t really think about that, I’m sort of coming to that time in my career where I don’t play for stats or numbers or anything like that. It’s more the positive impact I can have in an environment or a culture that really drives me.

“We’ll see how this season goes first. I’ve got to just recover from trainings at the moment so we’ll see how we go after the end of the season. I’ll sit down and re-assess and see how things are going.”

That doesn’t mean Messam won’t make a return to the red, black and yellow stripes next year, however.

“I’ll always work hard but I’ll always look after myself, my body. If the mind is right, the heart’s right, then why not?”

While the rugby landscape is quickly changing due to the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, Messam isn’t too concerned with the future and happy to see how things go in the coming months before making a decision on next year.

“Just with everything that’s going on, it’s pretty difficult to get your head around things and where things are at and again, the first priority for me is daddy day-care, which has just been absolutely awesome and good for the soul,” he said.

“I’m taking every day as it comes and we’ll see how things go.”

Whatever the future holds, any Waikato side will be better for having Liam Messam on their books – that will become increasingly apparent when the Mooloos kick off their season against Wellington on September 12.

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