Rugby Union: Lam the canny wolf in Saints' clothing

RUGBY UNION Frustrated at Newcastle, the Samoan now has a second crack at the European challenge with Northampton
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PAT LAM spent a fair-sized chunk of his week viewing video footage of Northampton's next Heineken Cup opponents, wondering all the while whether the exercise might not be a serious waste of good training time. "They're a French team, right?" he said of Grenoble, the great unknown quantities of this season's elite competition. "That means you're trying to plan for the unplanable. There's only one way to approach a big game against French opposition, and that is to treat them as though they are the best side in the world. If you catch them on a good day, it will feel like you really are playing the best. Even if they're off their game, they'll probably score more tries than you."

So that's that, then. Northampton's visit to Stade Lesdiguieres, spectacularly situated in the foothills of the French Alps, will be every bit as futile as those interminable video sessions. "Not at all," replied the Saints captain. "I'm just saying you need to treat these guys with respect, think on your feet and react to the things that happen, rather than the things you expect to happen. Look, during my time at Newcastle we played European Shield ties against Biarritz and Perpignan and put a total of 90 points on them. That, though, was at Kingston Park. When we went over there... well, we're talking a different story altogether. We had a real battle before winning in Perpignan and we were beaten fair and square in Biarritz.

"We had David Dantiacq, the Pau centre, at Northampton last season, and he summed up the French mentality. One day he would train like an angel and do all kinds of extraordinary things, the next day he wouldn't want to train at all. He was just very different. Their rugby players have phenomenal skill, combined with what I call a `No Fear' attitude; there is barely a trace of the safety-first about them, so they will always try to attack and score tries, even if they are short of ball. If they hit a rhythm in front of their own supporters, you can be history pretty quickly. If they don't, it's a bonus. It means you can get amongst them, pressurise them, cut down their space and force them into mistakes."

The proud owner of one of the sharpest rugby minds of his generation, Lam hardly needs telling that a result, any result, in Grenoble this afternoon would give his side a better than even chance not only of making the Heineken quarter-finals, but of guaranteeing themselves a home knock-out tie as a top-four qualifier. And as he enters his thirtysomething dotage, with an outstanding Test career with Samoa now behind him, he has good reasons for treating this competition as a personal crusade. Two seasons ago, he was the six-cylinder engine that drove Rob Andrew's Newcastle all the way to a first Allied Dunbar Premiership title, and his reward should have been a tilt at Europe's creme de la creme. Sadly, the English boycott left him tilting at windmills instead.

He asked for a fresh three-year deal and was knocked back by a newly impoverished Andrew, who could not now count on Heineken Cup revenue to ease the balancing of the Falcons books. "I suppose the boycott affected lots of things, directly and indirectly," agreed Lam. "The Newcastle squad as a whole lost out on a great deal, both in terms of the bonuses they'd expected for winning the title and taking the club into Europe and in terms of their own rugby fulfilment. The Heineken Cup is a very passionate competition; I've played Super 12 rugby in New Zealand and this is every bit as intense. It's the one northern hemisphere tournament that really gets noticed Down Under, so to miss out was bitterly disappointing.

"It's hard to know how Rob would have reacted had all things been equal and we'd taken our place in Europe. Who knows? He might still have said: `Pat, I can't give you three years because I can't afford it.' But that's all hypothetical. What happened, happened, and anyway, I have no regrets. While I enjoyed my time up north and found it exciting to be a part of something so new, we were really quite inward-looking at Newcastle because it wasn't a rugby town.

"Northampton is at the opposite end of the scale. The public expectation is so much greater, simply because we have a public; if the Saints lose a game, the guy in the street lets you know about it. And they've been starved of silverware, the people here. They crave success. I've got the rest of this season and another one on top to bring a trophy to Franklin's Gardens and, while we're not playing quite as well as I would like, there's a positive buzz about the place."

Lam could reasonably be described as the very embodiment of the word "positive"; he is a uniquely forceful loose forward, an elemental figure who invariably appears faster, harder, more athletic and infinitely more energetic than his direct opponent. "I don't feel pain on a rugby field," he once said. "It's a Samoan trait." Yet he is not remotely positive about Samoa's immediate future as a big-league player on the international scene. He and his countrymen may have been too much of a handful for the Welsh on that most emotional of World Cup occasions in Cardiff a little over six weeks ago, but the realpolitik of Test rugby continues to marginalise the islands of the Pacific.

"Can anyone honestly claim that the last World Cup was played on a level field? I don't think so. In '91, when Samoa first took part in the finals, there was at least some sort of equality: it was still an amateur game and, while the big countries were far more heavily sponsored and generally better off, the payments to players were the same. This time, there was no equality at all. We were on 50 per cent less money in '99 than we had been eight years previously. Fact. It's pretty hard to sell that sort of deal to the boys back home on the plantations.

"How could there be a level playing field when some sides spent three months preparing for the tournament and we got a fortnight? There's a problem for rugby here and it has to be addressed; if the sport wants to be truly global, the profits from this last tournament must go to the have-nots rather than the haves. Under the current touring system, the host nation pay their visitors' bills but keep 100 per cent of the gate receipts. That's great if you're pulling in 60,000 people to watch the game, but in Apia, we can get only 10,000 in our stadium. So on the odd occasion that a top team actually agrees to play in the islands, we fly them in and treat them like kings, and then find ourselves out of pocket.

"I have no fears about the playing strength in Samoa; there is a fantastic amount of rugby talent back home. But if the game in the islands does not offer the best young players a future - if they have no real chance of making a decent living from their skills - they will go elsewhere, to New Zealand or Australia or further afield. And then the profile of Samoan rugby will fade and the momentum we've generated over the last eight years will disappear. That is the fear that weighs on my mind."