Rugby Union: Battering Lam of Newcastle

Championship heads for fresh fields as Andrew's new model army look equipped to complete a five-year mission in two seasons: Simon Turnbull meets the enforcer who has driven his team to new heights
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The Independent Online
A GIANT papier mache model of Rob Andrew in kicking mode protrudes from the wall opposite the bar in the home nest of the Newcastle Falcons, Kingston Park. Follow its eye-line and you notice a Gilbert ball wedged half-way through a roof tile. Upon closer inspection you will find a speech bubble which has been pinned next to the mouth of the model professional. "Hit the ceiling?" it reads. "I don't believe it. I normally hit the post."

Bob Dwyer and the Wallabies of 1995 would attest otherwise, if ruefully so. The order of the right boot Andrew administered in the World Cup quarter- final in Cape Town that summer, with his last-gasp long-range drop goal, remains a towering testominy to his ability to deliver when it matters most. It will matter very much at The Stoop this afternoon. Victory against Harlequins would crown Andrew's Falcons champions of the Allied Dunbar Premiership. Defeat would pass the title-winning laurels to the double- seeking Saracens.

It is sure to be a test of nerve as well as champion mettle for the Falcons, victory having been snatched from their clutches in their last two away matches - against Saracens and Wasps. Even Andrew has confessed to feeling the strain.

"I'm not sure my heart can stand any more of this," he said after kicking half of his team's points in their 20-15 win against Bath at Gateshead on Monday. It is just as well, then, that Andrew will have such a doughty force as Pat Lam leading from the front this afternoon.

The captain of Western Samoa will be captain of the Falcons for the day, in the absence of the concussed Dean Ryan. He will also be the man the Sarries spies at The Stoop will fear the most. No foreign legionnaire, or native footsoldier for that matter, has made as marked an impression in the Premiership this season as the irrepressible Lam.

His dynamic back-row play has been the principal driving force behind Newcastle's championship challenge - and a headline-writers' dream too. "Lam leads the slaughter," has been a familiar sight. This particular Lam is certainly not dressed mutton.

His family stock is Samoan but his rugby pedigree is that of a prime New Zealander. A native Aucklander, he was groomed in the same New Zealand Colts side as Va'aiga Tuigamala, John Timu, Craig Innes, Walter Little, Matthew Ridge, Craig Dowd and Jamie Joseph. He played for the land of his Samoan forefathers in the 1991 World Cup, making a quarter-final appearance against Scotland at Murrayfield after featuring in the famous Arms Park victory that had the cruel world pointing out what a mercy it was that Wales had faced only the West of Samoa.

"Playing in that World Cup over here was a great opportunity for me," Lam reflected late last week. "But I'd come through the ranks as a New Zealand player. I played in every age group side. At the end of the tournament I had a talk with the Samoan management and said, `look, I've always wanted to be an All Black. I don't want to get to the end of my career and say what if? So can I give it a couple of years and if it doesn't work out I'll come back to Samoa and give it my best shot?' "

That best shot went tanatlisingly close to the bullseye. Lam played for New Zealand in the Hong Kong Sevens in 1992 and joined the tour party in Australia that year as a replacement for the injured Mike Brewer. He got his chance in the midweek side against Sydney but the break he got was not the one he wanted. Fractured ribs ended his tour after 30 minutes. Lam's All Black dream was broken too. "I was injured in 1993," he said, "and in 1994 the Samoan management said, `look, if you're going to come you've got to come now'."

Lam has since added another World Cup quarter-final appearance to his first-class curriculum vitae. He captained the Western Samoan team beaten by the hosts after reaching the final eight in South Africa three years ago. He has also savoured success at provincial level in New Zealand, having collected four winners' medals as a member of some awesome Auckland XVs. The list of team-mates he recounts sounds like a who's who of recent All Black greats: "Sean Fitzpatrick, John Kirwan, Terry Wright, Joe Stanley, Michael Jones, Grant Fox, the Whetton brothers, the Brooke brothers..."

It just so happens that one of the Brooke brothers will be attempting to trip Lam and the Falcons at the final championship hurdle this afternoon. Quins have been less than mighty in the Premiership this season but, as their new coach, Zinzan Brooke very nearly plotted the downfall of Newcastle's rivals in the title race a fortnight ago. Saracens had to overcome a deficit of 10 points in the last nine minutes to keep the pressure on Andrew's team.

"The pressure is great," Lam acknowledged. "A lot rides on this game. Sir John Hall's vision was for the club to win the championship in five years and we can do it in two. It all comes down to this one game. It's like playing in a cup final really.

"The best part about it is it's in our hands. We don't have to worry about anyone else. If we want to win it, it's there for us to do. It's a great situation for us to be in."

At 29, Newcastle's great open side flanker is content with his situation in life too. His wife and their three young children are happily settled on Tyneside. And Lam is relishing his role in the rise of the Falcons.

"We were in the second division when I came here at the start of last year," he said. "But I looked at the whole set-up and saw how professional the club was. I could see us working our way right up and being a successful team. At clubs like Bath and Leicester, they've done it all before. The challenge isn't new. Here, it's exciting to be part of something that's new, a new era."

That era will have a trophy-winning glint to it if Lam and the new age Falcons swoop to conquer this afternoon.