Samoa caps: 34
The 1990s were a turbulent few years for the Saints. At the start of the decade there had been the jubilance of reaching a first ever Twickenham final and coming within a whisker of finishing top of the pile of English club rugby.
Within five years the team had been relegated into Division 2, despite having some of the country’s best young players among the squad and one of the highest rated coaches anywhere in the land in the form of Ian (later Sir Ian) McGeechan.
But from this nadir came the most impressive of rebounds, firstly with an unbeaten promotion campaign and then a steady rise up the top flight. Nevertheless, both McGeechan and owner Keith Barwell knew that if the Saints were to make that nal step into the promised land of titles and silverware then they were going to need some outside reinforcements.
This is where Pat Lam came in.
New Zealand born-and-bred, Lam - who had found his way into the All Blacks team blocked by the likes of Zinzan Brooke - had become a legend in the land of his parents, Samoa, by helping them achieve one of the all-time historic results in Rugby World Cup history, beating Wales in 1991.
He had already been earmarked as a player to watch in his schooldays, starring for Auckland rugby powerhouse St Peter’s College and captaining New Zealand Schools in 1987. This was followed by selections for New Zealand Colts and Sevens, both in 1989, but the step up into senior rugby proved somewhat more problematic, not least because his rivals for a place in the Auckland back row included the aforementioned Brooke and fellow all-time great Michael Jones.
Despite that competition Lam represented Auckland regularly between 1990 and 94, before moving over the bridge to North Harbour for the 1995 season. That same year saw his second Rugby World Cup campaign and an identification as the man to take Samoa forward as captain.
As rugby turned professional and the southern hemisphere game was transformed by the new Super Rugby tournament Lam found himself drafted into the Crusaders squad for the maiden competition in 1996.
However, as in Auckland, his opportunities were limited, and in 1997 Lam decided to move north to join the revolution underway at Kingston Park as coach Rob Andrew used the millions of pounds of Sir John Hall to make Newcastle a title-winning force in the Premiership. Even in a team packed with talent Lam stood out, earning himself the Premiership Player of the Season award in 1997/98.
So when the announcement was made that he was moving south to join the Saints it not just caused consternation among the Falcons faithful and joy in the East Midlands, it also represented a huge statement of intent for the men from Franklin’s Gardens, too.
Lam’s first season in black, green and gold was the Saints’ most successful since 1991/92, the team finishing second in the Premiership. But it was the 1999/2000 campaign that would mark this group out as one of the best in the club’s history.
It did not begin that auspiciously, results suffering during the Rugby World Cup period with a number of senior players away with their countries, including Lam, who by now was well established as Samoa’s captain and inspired them to another memorable tournament.
Handed the armband back at the Gardens by new director of rugby John Steele, Lam set about doing the same at club level, and the second half of the season saw one victory after another as the players found themselves pursuing a league, cup and European treble.
With two months to play they were top of the table, working their way through the cup’s knockout rounds and, thanks to nail biting last-gasp wins over Wasps in the quarter final and Llanelli Scarlets in the semi-final, into a Heineken Cup final against Munster.
By the time the crucial final weeks came around bodies were showing the wear and tear of a heavy season, not least Lam’s, who belied a significant shoulder injury to keep on playing. Indeed, one of the unforgettable images of the year was of Lam, who had been substituted late on in the Heineken Cup semi-final, staying pitch side at the Madejski Stadium to urge his players into holding out the Scarlets’ late push for points.
A few crucial losses saw Saints’ title chances in the league slip away, and Wasps pulled clear in the latter stages of the Tetley’s Bitter Cup final to avenge their European loss a few weeks earlier.
So it fell to the final game of the season against Munster, who thanks to their stunning semi-final success against Toulouse in France had become overwhelming favourites. But in front of a then-record Heineken Cup final crowd of nearly 70,000 the Saints put in a confrontational and physical performance to knock the Munstermen off their stride, and while the Limerick outfit would score the only try Paul Grayson’s three penalties brought one of the defining images of the club’s history, Lam and Tim Rodber lifting the trophy.
And yet Lam might not even have been in the team, had his new-born son Joshua decided not to have been born for three more days!
“I just turned to Tim and said ‘Look, mate, I want you to go up there and lift it’,” Lam recalled in 2011. “He was pretty emotional about it. But he was the leader of our group, he’d been there right from the start and it was a real privilege to lift the cup with him.”
It was a relative struggle in Lam’s final season, bowing out in the European group stages and finishing fourth in the league, some 23 points behind champions, Leicester. Nevertheless he left the Gardens an all-time hero, and after playing one more season for Newcastle Lam retired to pursue a career in coaching.
Assisting Scotland in the 2003 Rugby World Cup, he coached Auckland between 2004 and 2008, the Blues for three more years, the Pacific Islands in 2006, Samoa in 2010, and latterly Connacht, who he guided to the Pro 12 title in 2016.