Chris Kennedy Thu 23 Aug 2018, 09:01 AM
An early injury to senior second-rower Chris Lawrence back in round nine was the turning point in Michael Chee Kam’s career.
The journeyman 26-year-old was an under-20s star for Canberra, playing in the 2012 NYC grand final and making the NYC team of the year, but a shoulder injury suffered in that game ruined his pre-season at new club Manly.
There were further setbacks: a torn meniscus on his eventual return in 2013, followed by a syndesmosis injury the next time he came back, impacted his fitness and confidence. He finished up with just five NRL caps in three years on the northern beaches and five more in his first year at Concord in 2016.
He settled into first grade as a centre or bench player last season and was told by coach Ivan Cleary in the 2018 pre-season that he was viewed as a bench impact player in the new-look Tigers side.
He played seven of the first eight games, averaging just 35 minutes and 70 metres per game.
Then just six minutes into the round nine game against the Warriors, Chris Lawrence flung himself at a sidestepping Shaun Johnson and came down hard, hitting his head on the turf and being taken off concussed.
Chee Kam was called into the fray; he took the very next hit-up, went on to play the best game of his NRL career so far and hasn’t looked back since. While it wasn’t a great day for the team, who got done 26-4, Chee Kam’s haul of 191 metres from 18 runs with seven busts and 32 tackles gave him the belief to be an 80-minute NRL forward.
“It was the Warriors game,” Chee Kam said without hesitation when asked by NRL.com what the light bulb moment was for him this year.
"I came on early; Rowdy (Lawrence) got injured and I played the whole game, got through a lot of work and still felt like I could have played more.
“I wasn’t that fatigued, and that gave me the confidence boost that I could play big minutes and get some work done.”
From that point on, Chee Kam has averaged 111 metres and 29 tackles per game in a drastic increase in his impact on matches.
The difference for Chee Kam this year – his first ever season getting solid minutes at NRL level in his preferred position of second row – has been having the coach back him as a starting second-rower.
“I’ve been around for a few years now, coming through reserve grade,” Chee Kam said.
"Solidifying one position, just focusing on the second row has really helped me. I’ve always wanted to play second row and just to be seen as a second-rower, I think that’s helped me build on that and give me some confidence.
“Ivan at the beginning of the year told me my role was to come off the bench as impact, come on after 30 minutes and try and lift the boys or when the forwards are a bit tired try and use my leg speed around the ruck.”
The Warriors game was a watershed moment and Chee Kam churned out another 171 metres (this time from centre) in round 11 against the Panthers. He was giving his first starting jersey of the year the following week but after just two games in the run-on side was demoted back to the bench.
“I got a start mid-year, Ivan gave me a start and I didn’t take it really seriously. I think it was against the Doggies (in round 12) then he dropped me back to the bench,” Chee Kam said. Chee Kam isn’t sure why he wasn’t able to grab his chance in those two games against the Bulldogs and Roosters.
“I was keen, I don’t know what it was,” he said.
“I guess it was a wake-up call when I got dropped back to the bench. I’ve worked so hard, I didn’t want to be a bench player anymore. I think it was a confidence thing.”
When Cleary let Chee Kam know he was returning to the bench, he also assured him it wasn’t permanent.
"He told me my chance was going to come again. I think it was three weeks later he gave me another start and said this was a big opportunity for me now to take this right side spot and it’s up to me if I want to grab it.