Lam lifted by Saints' European challenge

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The Independent Online

Samoan believes Northampton are in the right shape for daunting defence of rugby union's top club honour. The crunch time for Northampton was not the first weekend in September, when a thoroughly disgusted Pat Lam reacted to a derby defeat at Leicester by threatening to fly back home to New Zealand at the first hint of a repeat performance, but seven days later, when the European champions leaked 34 points at Sale.

Samoan believes Northampton are in the right shape for daunting defence of rugby union's top club honour. The crunch time for Northampton was not the first weekend in September, when a thoroughly disgusted Pat Lam reacted to a derby defeat at Leicester by threatening to fly back home to New Zealand at the first hint of a repeat performance, but seven days later, when the European champions leaked 34 points at Sale.

Would the isotonic islander disappear into the blue aboard the scheduled Sunday night flight from Heathrow to Auckland, or would he remain in the general vicinity of Franklin's Gardens and throw things at the walls? Or was the whole business a wind-up, one of Lam's not-so-subtle psychological ploys aimed at waking his fellow Saints from their slumbers?

"No, I wasn't playing games," the great Samoan forward said this week. "I was genuinely angry. I can't tell you how angry I was. We worked unbelievably hard last season to develop the kind of mindset that would earn the club a major title for the first time in its history, and, to see people suddenly not playing for each other... well, I found that very hard to take after all we'd been through. Everything seemed to have disappeared: our discipline, our work ethic. Even if we'd won at Leicester - and we were well in range until pretty late in the day - I'd have been upset."

Happily for Northampton - and, indeed, for all union aficionados with sufficient good sense to value the unique concoction of athleticism, passion and red-raw courage patented by this softly-spoken, God-fearing but utterly implacable back-row warrior - Lam stayed put. "A lot of guys have answered a lot of questions over the last couple of matches," he explained. "I thought our rugby against Rotherham was somewhere near the mark, and we could have put 40 on Bath last weekend. It's coming back together, I'm relieved to say." The East Midlands' gain is the North Island's loss.

The fact that Lam is playing anything more challenging than the occasional round of whist is remarkable in itself, for his performance in last May's Heineken Cup final, when he led Northampton to the summit of European rugby at the expense of a heavily favoured Munster, has an honoured place in the annals of sporting insanity. He had been dragging a damaged shoulder around the muddied rectangles of Britain for weeks, and as a crippling campaign neared its conclusion he could barely sleep, let alone tackle. Much of the advice he received before the big Twickenham showpiece was as authoritative as it comes, but Lam effectively told the medical community where to stick their stethoscopes. By going the distance in a hard contest, he ignored his own body as well as the doctors.

Had he called it quits there and then, no one would have batted an eyelid. But that was never an option; having been the first Northampton captain to lay hands on silver, he now intends to be the first captain from anywhere to lift the Heineken Cup in successive seasons. "It will be so, so difficult to achieve, but that's the motivation," he said. "And this team knows what it is to be motivated. Our challenge last season was to win something, and we ended up winning the biggest thing there is. The challenge this time is every bit as great, but I'd like to think we can rise to it again."

And the nature of the challenge is about to present itself. On Sunday, Northampton travel to Wasps, the side who pushed them so hard on all fronts last time out, for a Premiership fixture of no little significance. From there, they begin the defence of their European title in Biarritz, home of the Liÿvremont brothers and Philippe Bernat-Salles, a side running so hot that they put almost 50 points past a useful Colomiers outfit at Parc des Sports d'Aguilera on Tuesday night. "Hell, they did that, did they?" Lam muttered. "Well, we always thought it would be difficult over there."

It will be difficult to the point of impossible if Northampton do not travel in a decent state of health. One or two reconditioned pieces of heavy artillery have been wheeled into position - crucially, Garry Pagel's Brobdingnagian frame is back in the front row after some early-season injury hassle - but the likes of Matt Dawson and Tim Rodber, not to mention Nick Beal and Craig Moir, are still hors de combat. That, according to Lam, is a direct result of last season's traumatic run-in, when players went way beyond the call of duty in following the skipper's lead and putting ravaged bodies through ever-increasing degrees of torment.

"We were hanging together on will and spirit," said Lam, whose own pain threshold is so high that nothing short of a team of Sherpas could possibly locate it. "We were very tired and, in some cases, very injured. Physically, we'd gone completely. We couldn't train in any real sense of the word, so we just worked on the mental aspect of the game and tried to ensure that we were in the right frame of mind. Before the Munster game, we didn't put down a single scrum on the training paddock. Not one. There was no team session worth speaking about because there was never a full attendance. There would always be someone getting treatment.

"That situation translates directly to the problems we've had this season. A lot has been said recently about the length of the English season and, while I love a game of rugby as much as anyone, I have to share in the concerns expressed by other players and coaches. I really couldn't believe it when we started playing in the middle of August - and I'm one of the lucky ones, because I've retired from international rugby, which places so many extra demands on people. The game is so much harder now than it was a decade ago in New Zealand and it's obvious that players cannot go on like this indefinitely. It's getting to the point where someone like Lawrence Dallaglio needs to sit out three weeks with injury, just to give himself an even chance of hitting some form later on."

When Lam, a 24-carat rugby nut if ever there was one, starts subscribing to the "less is more" theory, the game's alphabet soup brigade - the RFU types, the ERP negotiators, the EFDR board members - really should start paying attention. But hey, parlour politics is for parlour politicians and rugby is for players. Lam rarely dwells long on the boardroom issues when there are big games ahead of him, and early-season matches rarely come any bigger than the next two.

"If we can only get a result at Wasps, we'll be sitting pretty in the Premiership and can throw everything we have at Europe," he said. "We've made big strides since that day at Welford Road and we're getting into shape for the unique demands of a Heineken Cup competition. You know, this club still doesn't really understand what was achieved at Twickenham last May. I don't think I understand it, not fully. To win the Heineken is something you only truly appreciate five, maybe ten, years down the track. To go back-to-back, something no side has ever managed to do, would be something even more special."

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