Rugby Union: The import with a duty European Cup final: Lamaison and company have frightening quality as Bath bank on all-American boy

Tim Glover meets the forward thinker at the heart of Bath's back row
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THE first time Dan Lyle touched a rugby ball was when somebody kicked it into the crowd. Lyle, a spectator at a university match, stuck out an arm, not much smaller than that on the Statue of Liberty, and plucked it out of the air one-handed.

At the time Lyle, the son of a US Army general, was on a football scholarship at the Virginia Military Institute and was not allowed to play rugby union. A career in the Pentagon, or as a running back in American football (either way a military exercise) seemed to be the option.

Lyle was born in Louisville, Kentucky, the home of Muhammad Ali who, as the young Cassius Clay, was a cleaner at the high school attended by Lyle's mother. A promising athlete, Lyle was a member of the Washington Redskins' squad but his skills were more readily appreciated by the national union team, the American Eagles.

David Jenkins, on a business trip in America, thought that another Eagle, Luke Gross, would be a useful acquisition for Bath. However, Jenkins, now Bath's operations director, was given the hard sell by Lyle. "I was like a walking soapbox," Lyle said. Gross, an Indiana state basketball player, joined Harlequins as a lock forward; the Bath back row got Lyle, one of the best buys in the Premiership.

On Saturday he will be the American in Bordeaux for what promises to be an epic Heineken Cup final against Brive. Lyle's arrival at Bath in 1996 coincided with the game turning professional followed by upheaval at the club as the coach Brian Ashton resigned and the director of rugby, John Hall, was dismissed. What with the TV documentary, more fly in the ointment than fly on the wall, Bath have hardly been out of the spotlight. Now they travel to France, the players cocking a deaf 'un over the gruesome mystery of Simon Fenn's ear.

"We've got to rally round each other and rally around Bath," Lyle said. "We've got to put what is happening off the field to the back of our minds. We've already had a couple of good team-building sessions. We are starting to feel good about ourselves."

Apart from the fact that the game has got faster and harder, the most significant change, to Lyle's mind, is that it has become more equal. "Bath used to have two or three really hard games a season and the rest were average. Now there is much more parity. We have to play hard every week."

Bath have already played Brive twice, winning at home 27-25 and losing away 29-12. "There is very little we don't know about them," Lyle said. "People say we've gone off the rails but if you look at our record there are many clubs who would love to have such a season. We've got the ability to win the European Cup but we've got to be up for it."

Lyle says he is "pissed" (this is the American version of "pissed off" and is not to be confused with a state of intoxication) at the prospect of English clubs boycotting the European Cup next season. "Playing in Europe raises the levels of everybody. We've got to maintain development. We want to rival soccer, not look like rugby league. I joined Bath because I wanted to play with the best, to see what I was made of. I grew up in an environment in which professionalism was an every-day factor. Here we are still trying to come to terms with it."

What Lyle, aged 27, 6ft 5in and nearly 18 stone, has brought to Bath are his presence, strength, speed and above all an athleticism that makes him particularly effective in the line-out. In short, he has developed into a world-class forward.

The juxtaposition between union and American football is tempting, if superficial. "I draw from my gridiron experience," Lyle said. "There are obvious similarities, like running, catching, passing and tackling, but in other respects it's apples and oranges. One is a collision sport and one's a tackling sport. They hit harder in American football. Even with padded protection, you still feel the sheer velocity because the body is used almost as a projectile. So many positions are specific and it's more controlled. Rugby, on the other hand, incorporates so many different skills, and the ability to think on your feet is much more relevant."

Lyle took over the captaincy of the Eagles in 1996, the year he was offered employment not only by Bath but by the Minnesota Vikings. "They saw me play for the Eagles and gave me a trial. They thought I did well enough to offer me a contract. My friends think I'm suicidal and crazy; well, just crazy but they don't understand rugby. Bath is a real rugby town and it's great for the ego."

When the apples and oranges are put into a blender, Lyle is sure that the Eagles will no longer be an unprotected species. "People have always patronised me about the US being a second-tier rugby nation but professionalism will change all that. Deals are in progress, money is coming in that will enable us to pull players out of the fringe of the NFL. We will have a weird and wonderful team. Imagine a guy who can run like a sprinter, weighs 245lb and we put him in the front row? They will be so athletic, super fit and strong that they will make up for everything else. People used to say America would have a hell of a rugby team if the NFL boys were available. Well it's happening, so watch out. The identity of our team will change overnight."

Lyle, who has two years remaining on his contract with Bath, rejoins the Eagles in April for an 11-Test schedule which incorporates World Cup qualifying in Argentina. Back to the present: if Bath played the Eagles, who would win? "I can't answer that," Lyle said. "Probably whatever team I was in. Just joking."