For every rugby follower who wondered whether Ryan Lamb would fulfil his rich potential at Gloucester – and they were right to wonder, because he fell a long way short – there were at least half a dozen who questioned whether he could conceivably do so anywhere else.
Here was a youngster who drank in Cherry and White lore with his mother's milk; a brilliant local product living the local dream; a cradle-to-grave Kingsholmite to the tips of his toes. When he moved to London Irish at the start of last season, the Cotswold cognoscenti shook their heads. "How will he survive in London," they asked, "when he regards Cheltenham as foreign territory?"
His continuing absence from the representative scene seems, on the face of it, to bear them out. Three years ago, he was routinely mentioned alongside Toby Flood , Danny Cipriani and Shane Geraghty as an international outside-half in the making, and with good reason: he was, and remains, an exquisite footballer, blessed with a skill-set common to many a top-class No 10 from the production line on the other side of the Welsh border. Yet while he is far from alone in slipping off the radar – Geraghty spends so much time on the Northampton bench, he will soon need surgery on his splinters; Cipriani loathes the England set-up to such a degree he is heading for Australia on the basis that it is just about far enough away – it is fair to say that he is further from the thoughts of Martin Johnson and his fellow selectors than any of his peers.
But contrary to the assumptions of the "told-you-so" brigade, he is making a go of it up there in the smoke. "When you spend the first 23 years of your life in a place, surrounded by family and friends, it's a big decision to leave it all behind," Lamb admits. "But I needed to leave, to get away, to live and play my rugby somewhere new. As luck would have it, I chose wisely. The Thames may not be the Severn – people don't surf down the Thames – and there's not much manure about the place, but I feel very settled and comfortable where I am. I have a house just down the road from the training ground, the people are great and I have all the support and encouragement I need." Then he pauses for a second before adding: "It's home."
Who would have expected to hear such a thing? It is hard to imagine a more Gloucesterish sort than the outside-half, whose father turned out for Matson, for many years the most powerful of the city's junior clubs and considered at the time to be mad, bad and dangerous to play against. When Lamb is reminded of the occasion when an opposition player was hit across the shoulder blades by an elderly lady wielding an umbrella – the poor soul was running down the wing at the time – he laughs loud and long before saying: "That was probably my nan." You can take the boy out of Gloucester... Yet the way he tells it, London Irish have taken complete possession of him, heart and soul. "I always thought I'd be among friends here because I knew some of the players – Topsy Ojo, Delon Armitage, Nick Kennedy – from my time with England Saxons and I'd spent three weeks on tour sharing a room with Paul Hodgson. But the main attraction was working with a really open-minded coaching team. I hoped Toby Booth and Mike Catt would make a difference, and they have.
"I spend a lot of time with Mike. Last season, when he was still playing, it was an education to work alongside him. There were times when I felt like asking him if there was even the slightest chance that I might do my own thing, but as he was right in his decision-making far more often than I was, I kept my mouth shut. Now he's a full-time coach, it's all about what we do on the training field. He's incredibly informative. Tolerant too. If he gets fed up with me asking stupid questions, he doesn't show it."
Lamb's wholly positive relationship with Catt – and with Booth, the head coach who brought him to the Exiles – inevitably raises the issue of his more fractious relationship with Dean Ryan at Gloucester. During his time in charge at Kingsholm, the "Big Bad Wolf" was openly critical of Lamb's failures of game management and dropped him for a number of important matches, decisions which led directly to the player's departure. Lamb is reluctant to reopen the wound: "I don't look back on it at all; it's onwards and upwards as far as I'm concerned," he says. But he does worry about his reputation as a master midfield puppeteer whose strings become knotted the moment he comes under pressure.
"Once you have a label stuck on you, it's hard to shake it off," he acknowledges. "Is it still there? Yes, if I'm honest. But I have a clearer understanding of my weaknesses now and that puts me in a better position to work on them. I'll always want to play what you might call a 'flair game' – I don't want to lose that aspect of my rugby because when all is said and done, it's the biggest part of me – but as I develop as a player, I appreciate more and more that there's a time and place for the more conservative approach.
"Rugby's a ruthless business, especially when you play in an environment like the Premiership, where the threat of relegation is a fact of life and Heineken Cup qualification is seen as a minimum requirement. You have to accept there's a line to tread. The good thing about playing rugby here is that I have the freedom to try stuff as it occurs to me. Yes, I'll get the old shepherd's crook treatment if it goes wrong three or four times. That's only reasonable. But I'd like to think I can try something twice without finding myself dumped from the team. It's possible to play ambitiously, no matter what the stakes. The All Blacks do it, so why can't the rest of us?"
Those who despair at some of the troll-like performances turned in by the national team will wholeheartedly agree with Lamb's sentiments, and are likely to be further encouraged by his desire to reacquaint himself with the broader England set-up. "I haven't been involved at all for a couple of years now and if I don't make a proper case for myself by performing well at club level, there won't be a way back," he says. "That means making sure that my second season here is better than my first. We started well last time, but injuries kicked in and we started making silly mistakes, myself included. After Christmas, we couldn't buy a win. Just scraping into the Heineken Cup was a bit of a crash, especially when you consider we'd been in the Premiership final 12 months previously.
"But I still want to be involved with England and I still think I can get there. Toby was the first-choice at 10 last season and he's done well for himself: of those of us who were always talked about as a group of young, up-and-coming outside-halves, I think he was always the most pragmatic. He also had a massive work ethic, probably the result of playing so much rugby at Newcastle alongside Jonny Wilkinson. Yet I don't think the position has been nailed down. If any player puts together a run of really strong displays, anything can happen. Look at the way Ben Youngs has broken into the team at scrum-half. He's a perfect example of what can be achieved."
Of course, both Youngs and Flood (now likely to be miss the next six weeks through injury) have the advantage of playing at Leicester, whose inimitable brand of winning rugby ensures they appear in more high-profile, high-pressure matches than any other English team. It is London Irish's declared ambition to position themselves alongside the Midlanders, and there have been times in recent campaigns when they have hinted at closing the gap. In reality, though, there is still an entire ocean's worth of clear blue water between the two.
"Let's see what happens over the next few months," Lamb says. "People look at our signings for this season, see there are only three of them plus some academy lads and write us off. What they don't realise is that by having so many injured players back fit, it's as if we have a whole new side. I think we'll surprise a few, definitely." Starting at Bath today? "That," he says, eyes ablaze with the old West Country tribalism, "would be nice."Reuse content