Just as quick as Ben Lam was having his name touted by some as an outside possibility for the All Blacks this year, it was announced that the 29-year old will depart for France.
Lam is in fine company amongst some notable names that New Zealand Rugby were caught sleeping on.
Waisake Naholo gave up trying to make a case for regular selection in the All Blacks and, before that, Lam’s former teammate Julian Savea had already fallen well out of selection contention as far as Steve Hansen was concerned.
Throw in journeyman Tevita Li from the Highlanders and the ultra-capable Melani Nanai who was perhaps the Blues’ brightest light in 2019, and you already had four players who slipped through the fingers.
None of these men were close to being over the hill.
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And now we have Ben Lam saying goodbye, fresh off another blockbusting performance for the Hurricanes that once again showed he’s a quality winger with all the tools to go further.
What’s more, nobody is surprised. There is simply too much wing/utility back talent in New Zealand.
It feels as if Lam has been in front of our eyes for years, but after this gigantic blockbusting winger out of St. Peters College started out in Super Rugby with the Blues back in 2012, it wasn’t until 2018 that he had his first full season run.
That was the same year Julian Savea had fallen out of favour and would ultimately leave the Hurricanes.
Lam was in unquestionably good form that year and it didn’t take long for speculation about an All Blacks call-up to follow. That never happened under Steve Hansen, and now we will never know if it could’ve under Ian Foster, though you sense it wasn’t the highest of possibilities given the backline that the All Blacks already possess.
Still, it feels in some ways like another example of a player with all the skills and proven form to warrant All Blacks selection leaving these shores too soon, and like many of his counterparts who’ve done the same, the reason Lam hasn’t had a fair shake at the All Blacks is complex.
If you look at who Lam is up against for a spot, you’re comparing him with the likes of Sevu Reece, Rieko Ioane, George Bridge and Jordie Barrett just to name a few. Throw in David Havili, Braydon Ennor, and outside chances like Wes Goosen and Solomon Alaimalo, then Lam was certainly up against it just as much this year as he has been before.
Then there is the age factor, all those names mentioned above are younger than Lam, and this is what some of the reaction on social media has focused on.
Aged 29, this is the right time in the eyes of some for Lam to head to Europe and chase big contracts with high monetary value, and French club Bordeaux certainly has dosh to shell out.
Naholo, now playing in London, departed these shores at age 28 – the same age as Savea when he left for Toulon.
The @BluesRugbyTeam have had an average start to the @SuperRugby season, but most teams would be in a similar boat if they had to play two of the competition favourites ????#SuperRugbyhttps://t.co/Mkek2iO3Ui
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 16, 2020
However, the argument of age being the defining factor for a winger when it comes to capability at the international level seems far-fetched, especially when you look at history.
Names such as Ben Smith and Leigh Halfpenny come to mind. Smith was still one of the All Blacks’ best performers in his late thirties and was a regular feature on the wing. Welsh fullback/wing Halfpenny is still considered one of the best over the last decade and is still going strong at 31. Exciting South African winger and 2019 RWC-winner Makazole Mapimpi appears to be one of the best wingers in the game today and he’s the tender age of 31.
The crux of this is not age, it’s that Ben Lam is clearly not in favour with the All Blacks selectors.
The All Blacks had ample opportunity to give him a run before now. Remember that Sevu Reece only burst onto the scene in 2019 thanks to his stellar performances for the Crusaders. If not for that, Reece was never going to Japan with the All Blacks.
Furthermore, Rieko Ioane was lucky to make the trip considering his average form last year, as well as a suspected significant injury right he’d been carrying through the build-up to and during that tournament.
Lam, meanwhile, had been showing his worth with the Hurricanes well over a year earlier and, maybe if not for a few injuries along the way, could well have been even better on the park than he was.
You feel that the fate was set for Lam in 2018, but the big man decided to give it one last shot with the hopes of bolting into the World Cup squad in 2019.
When that didn’t happen, Lam likely instructed his agent to pick up the phone and negotiate a deal, all to the better of club rugby in Europe. Unfortunately for New Zealand, he’s just one more player who’s slipped through the country’s ever-shaky fingers.
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