Rugby Union: Super Lam on another planet

A prodigious rugby talent has landed at Northampton and the rest of the elite should be nervous.
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The Independent Online
FRANKLIN'S GARDENS is the place to be this season. However good a side Northampton had before, this year they promise to be something special. The signing of the summer, possibly of the year, means that Saints fans will be treated to one of the most explosive and extraordinary talents operating in rugby at the moment.

Unfortunately, their first glimpse of Pat Lam, the sport's equivalent of Superman, will be very restricted. First, because Saints' opening match of the season is away to Saracens at Watford tomorrow; second, because Lam flies off almost immediately to the southern hemisphere to take part in Western Samoa's gruelling World Cup qualifying campaign against Tonga, Fiji and Australia over the next three weeks.

There is no doubt he will be missed, although Harlequins and Leicester will be mightily relieved since his time away coincides with their Premiership matches against Northampton.

Lam is a back-row player of prodigious talent, power and pace. Saints know just how fortunate they are to have him. He had looked well settled in the North-East, helping Newcastle, first to promotion the season before last, then to the Premiership One Championship last year.

His efforts earned him accolades from every walk of rugby life yet, in July, while he was away touring New Zealand with Western Samoa he learned that Newcastle were about to sell him.

"I was staggered," says Lam, who will be 30 later this month. "I left to go on tour fully expecting that my agent and the club would be negotiating a new three-year contract at Newcastle. I just wanted some security.

"But Rob Andrew [Newcastle's director of rugby] reckoned it was an offer I could not refuse, and anyway he explained to me that they could not match Northampton's offer. When Rob then told me that they needed a tighthead prop - they subsequently signed Marius Hurter from Western Province - I knew I had little choice.

"It was a bit annoying though, because I wasn't even in the country when it was being done. And it was made to look as if I had gone for the money, but that is not the case.

"I am not in this game for the money. I want a quality of life for my family. I have a wife and three children to consider as well and they had all settled down really well in Newcastle, a place we all liked from the outset and we had a house ready to buy. I think one of the reasons I played so well up there was because my wife and family were so happy there."

Reluctantly at first, Lam headed south, leaving his wife, Stephanie, and the children in the north-east until November. "The deal here with Northampton is a lot better than at Newcastle," he says, "and rugby-wise I know I am in the right place. Ian McGeechan's style of rugby suits me.

"It is up to me to try to fit into the new style down here. At Newcastle they restricted my natural game, which is OK, I'm a team man and I want to do what is best for everyone, but I do believe we could have been a bit more expansive. Here `Geech' has given me more of a free rein and I am really enjoying it."

Lam, who played in the 1991 and 1995 World Cup tournaments each time, helping Western Samoa to the quarter-finals, retains many fond memories of his two years with Newcastle.

"The back three of Dean Ryan, Richard Arnold and I played well off each other. Arnold is a great grafter on the floor, Ryan took the hard yards going forward and I was able to take the ball on. In fact, I called Richard "Guts" and he called me "Glory" because of the difference in our roles.

"With Northampton I have again been taken on as part of a complementary unit. Here Budge Pountney fills Arnold's role, Tim Rodber is more of a Dean Ryan. I can play off both of them.

"At Northampton under Ian McGeechan the description loose forward is a licence to thrill it seems to me. Of course you have to remain disciplined and have the right vision. There is no point in being expansive when it is inappropriate. We just have to work as a unit. And we are slowly learning each others strengths and weaknesses."

McGeechan thinks the process is a little faster than that. He is still amazed that Lam fell into their lap. "I think most people were surprised that Newcastle were prepared to transfer him, but once we knew that was the case we didn't waste any time. And since Pat has arrived here he has been tremendous. His impact in training has been colossal.

"He is a quality player. He thinks about the game. He has tremendous vision and his timing is awesome. He hits lines very late and in tight situations it is almost as if he develops a sixth sense under the pressure. He seems to know instinctively where the space is going to be or the advantage is to be gained."

Lam has another distinct advantage over mortal rugby players: his physical approach to the game. Invariably when he is being tackled the first opponent, or three, will bounce off him. It is as if he is running through them, rather like in karate when you have to look beyond or through what you are going to hit because that is where your hand is going to end up. So it is with Lam, except that it is not his fist making the blow, but his body.

"There was a scientific study made in New Zealand recently and it claimed that Polynesians' muscles were very different from Europeans," Lam says.

"Our muscles are harder for some genetic reason. And if you went to a secondary school in New Zealand you would see that Polynesian children reach physical maturity long before European children. A lot of Polynesian players suffer cruciate ligament damage in their knees, but they never need reconstruction because the musculature is so strong. Well, that's what a doctor told me.

"These World Cup qualifiers are going to be tough," says Lam. "When we play against Tonga and Fiji the hits are going to be hard. When I tackle, or I am tackled by, a European I can feel the difference. Polynesians are harder, somehow. Well, they are different. They do not stop in the tackle, they keep going. In fact, I would say that in Western Samoa we almost prefer tackling to running with the ball. We thrive on physical contact." Wham! Bam! Thank you, Lam.