Rugby Union: Islander Lam finds a suitable climate on the Tyne

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The Independent Online
Chris Hewett meets Newcastle's superlative Samoan flanker, whose abundant rugby union talents have proved crucial to the Falcons' Premiership campaign

"THREE years ago, we had no one much to play against and nowhere to turn; we were losing players left, right and centre, rugby league was aggressively poaching our best talent and the future looked barren. Thankfully, professionalism has changed everything. We are strong again. We can compete."

Pat Lam was talking about the changing fortunes of Western Samoa, but he might just as easily have been discussing the 15-man revolution in the distinctly untropical union outpost of Newcastle.

The ancien regime of the English game, Bath and Leicester, were consigned to the tumbrels weeks ago and, tomorrow, the 29-year-old flanker will attempt to legitimise the Geordie insurrection by inflicting a swift guillotine job on Harlequins, those notoriously fickle aristos with one foot in the Twickenham establishment and the other in the Stock Exchange.

It is no coincidence that both Newcastle and the Samoans, who are relishing a shot at the old guard in next year's World Cup, point to Lam's demonic energy as a primary source of inspiration.

By common consent, he is the player of this inaugural Premiership campaign; no mean accolade when you consider the impacts of Lynagh and Pienaar, Back and Stransky, Lyle and Perry. "Pat has been phenomenal all season," says Rob Andrew, the Falcons' director of rugby, of his single most influential lieutenant. "He gives us such a cutting edge. If our tight forwards do their job - and they've done it fantastically well, by and large - he roams the paddock and causes mayhem." Andy Robinson, the Bath coach, is equally reverent. "I've nothing but respect for the guy," he oozes.

You will not hear Lam shouting such odds on his own behalf, though. If ever there was a silent rugby assassin, the eternally modest Samoan fits the bill; he goes about his business quickly, decisively and without fuss, his athletic prowl transporting him smoothly to the most distant corners of the pitch, the furthest-flung theatres of combat. Yet he seldom betrays signs of the wear and tear common to his trade; indeed, he barely breaks sweat. Like Muhammad Ali before him, he has mastered the knack of emerging from battle with the unblemished features of a pacifist.

"We've had our problems in London this season," he says, assessing the finale with Quins in the light of defeats at Saracens, Richmond and Wasps. "But it will be different this time, I feel. It's a cup final for us, isn't it? We can see the light at the end of a long, long tunnel and we'll be right up for the contest. We all consider this to be the culmination of two years' work; it's been a long process and we know how much it would hurt us to let it slip now.

"When I arrived at Newcastle in February of last year, there was a great deal of ambition but very little confidence. I remember playing Leicester in the cup in my second game; they had just played a Heineken Cup final, we'd achieved absolutely nothing and we lost quite comprehensively. There is such a different feeling in the dressing-room now. When we went to Leicester in the league, there was a definite sense that we could win.

"That change of mood comes from togetherness. Last summer, we trained with great intensity before travelling to Agen in France, a place where there are few easy pickings, and winning. Then we won at Bath in our first Premiership game. The spirit began to grow; suddenly, we had an idea of how big a thing we could be involved in.

"It's helped having good people at management level; not just Rob and Steve Bates, but our fitness adviser, Steve Black. He played a particularly important role in getting us back up mentally after our defeats at Saracens and Wasps. He wrote to all of us individually, setting out the scenario for the rest of the season and reminding us how much was riding on it. I found it an incredibly positive gesture. The depression just seemed to disappear.

"But then, I've found this whole Newcastle thing a positive experience. When I played with Auckland in New Zealand, they were already a great side; the dynasty had been in place for 15 years or so and there was an overriding sense of continuity. This has been quite the opposite, a walk into the unknown. We've built it up from a low base, grown our support from 800 to 5,000 and started to make an impact in the community. It's been extraordinary, really. We're opening shops and metro stations, just like the football guys."

Lam has another year on his contract and is about to start negotiating an extension. "I intend to retire from international rugby after next year's World Cup and then have three good seasons at club level. Yes, I'd like that club to be Newcastle, but it's up to Rob and the rest of the management team. Just at the moment, I've got Quins to think about. Not to mention a New Zealand tour and a World Cup qualifying tournament with my country."

Disturbingly for those who remember the physical havoc wreaked by the Samoans during both the 1991 and 1995 World Cups, Lam, who played for New Zealand colts before swearing loyalty to his mother island, says his compatriots "fancy their chances of something better" next year. "We've made two successive quarter-finals and we will view it as a terrible failure if we don't match that in Wales. We are stronger now than at any time since '91.

"After the last tournament, we lost 10 or 11 front-line players and felt isolated by the Tri-Nations deal between New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. Professionalism has allowed us to transform our situation; we have 10 or so guys playing pro rugby here in England and others playing Super 12. When I went home to Auckland a few weeks back, the New Zealand training camps were full of Samoans; indeed, the schoolboy scene was totally dominated by islanders. Working on the basis that they can't all be All Blacks, we can expect access to a lot of fresh talent."

If the best of that talent turns out to be of a Lam-like quality, watch out world. Those Englishmen fazed by the prospect of a torrid summer in Auckland and Dunedin may soon find the attractions of Apia or Moamoa less alluring still.

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