Flying Fallon takes wing

Owen Slot meets a union convert who is now a power for Leeds
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The Independent Online
WHEN Wigan's 21-game winning run was finally stopped by Leeds last December, it was not on Ellery Hanley, who scored a match-winning try, that the praise was heaped. Hanley had been brilliant, but no one was surprised at that. Instead, it was Jim Fallon who was greeted with a round of applause when he arrived back in the dressing-room after scoring twice in the 33-28 triumph. What prompted the clapping was the Leeds coach Doug Laughton turning to the big winger and saying: "Welcome to the team."

Fallon had been at Leeds for more than two years. Laughton tempted him to the professional code from Bath, where he had showed international promise. At the start of the present season, however, Laughton was beginning to wonder if the class he had seen in the rugby union winger was ever going to show in league. "Big Jim always had it," said Laughton. "It was just getting the bugger out of him. He's a laid-back, lazy bastard, but he can do it when he wants." The abuse was delivered in good humour, because when Fallon, now 30, turns out in the Challenge Cup final at Wembley on Saturday, Laughton knows that he has become one of the players on whom he can rely.

"There are times when I thought he wasn't going to work out," said Laughton, a coach who prides himself on his success with rugby union converts. Jonathan Davies, Martin Offiah, Alan Tait, Paul Moriarty and John Devereux had all made a successful switch under Laughton, but Fallon, he said, "was hard bloody work".

It had all started with a phone call back in April 1992. Laughton had called Fallon at his office in Bath where he was a trainee accountant; Fallon had thought it was a wind-up by Gareth Chilcott, his team-mate, but was eventually persuaded to meet Laughton at a pub in Tewkesbury. A few days later, Laughton went to watch Fallon in the Pilkington Cup final at Twickenham where Bath beat Harlequins 15-12 in a tense extra-time finish. "Jim actually had a shocker," Laughton said; nevertheless he had seen enough of him to be convinced that he was sufficiently powerful a winger to make the switch.

Few doubted Laughton's judgement at Bath, where Fallon is still remembered for a try that got them through to that final. Bath were losing to Northampton, injury time was running out, and Fallon powered over in the corner, brushing off the challenge of Ian Hunter, a man not known to miss a tackle. "I hit him," recalls Hunter, "and all he did was stumble a bit. You didn't want to have a one-on-one with that guy 10 yards from the line."

Up at Leeds, however, Fallon found it anything but easy. Alongside him were two All Blacks attempting to make the conversion: Craig Innes, who had arrived seven months earlier and was doing well, and John Gallagher, who was the biggest-name union convert since Jonathan Davies, was seriously struggling, and presented a picture of the failure that Fallon began to fear. "Jim's a lot tougher, though," Laughton said. "He's one hard man is Mr Fallon."

This, though, meant little to Fallon at the time. "For most of the first year I was wondering if I'd done the right thing," he said. "It was everything: the place, the culture shock, the new game - taking all those knocks, I felt permanently knackered." So he spent a lot of time on the phone to Bath for a reminder of the good times. "He was a very popular member of the team." said Tony Swift, who ran the other wing at the Rec. "Often there are petty jealousies with people who have left, but he had, and still has, the full support of the team. On the team coach, we still talk about how he is doing."

The subject of Jim Fallon must have made for pretty depressing team-coach conversation in his early Leeds days. Laughton says the problem was attitude: "I don't think he lacked the skill, it was the motivation. He was so laid back, he wasn't going to take it by the scruff of the neck and make it happen."

Laughton, however, was just getting used to a demeanour well-known in union circles. "He was the sort of guy who has one serious side to his life, and the rest of it he will dream on through - in probably a very happy way," said Swift. "In training, he used to give the impression that he really didn't care," said Hunter, who played with him for England A.

Likewise at Leeds. Fallon conjures an image of wet mornings training at Headingley, where Hanley will be working up a furious sweat, Alan Tait will be thumping his chest and barking orders sergeant-major-style at his team-mates while he and Kevin Iro ("one of my allies") will stand around and moan about the weather. "On such days there's not a lot to laugh about," he said. Small wonder, then, that summer rugby - part of the new Super League proposal - gets his full approval.

So is this image, which they now joke about at Leeds, the real thing? "I suppose I must be laid back if everyone says I am. I'll take their word for it. I do play up to it a bit," he said, somewhat self-consciously. "But yes, I sometimes do find it hard to get motivated for a game and that does bother me. Like last week, we were second in the league, we weren't going to go any higher or lower, we were playing for nothing basically. I'd like to be like Ellery, always giving 100 per cent, never having a bad game, but I can't see that happening."

There will be no problems on the motivation front for Saturday. For the "nothing" games, he says, he now disciplines himself to sit down beforehand and focus on the match and his role in it. For the big ones like Wembley, though, the problem is the opposite: "I've been thinking about it ever since the semi- final and I have to stop myself getting too hyped up."

If he could possibly need any more inspiration, Fallon could always turn to Laughton. Asked where Fallon would appear, if he had to list his union converts in order of merit, he said: "Oh, somewhere near the bottom. And if he doesn't pull his finger out on Saturday, it'll be the very bottom. The best thing for him is if somebody smacks him - he doesn't half go bananas."

"I hope someone smacks him early on at Wembley," Laughton added. "That," said the hard Mr Fallon, "won't be necessary."