One of the iconic faces of Newcastle Falcons’ Premiership-winning team, Pat Lam returns to Kingston Park tomorrow with his new Irish province, Connacht.
The smiling Samoan was a central figure in the Falcons side which surged to the 1997-8 league title, becoming the first and still the only club to claim the prize in their maiden top-flight season.
Scoring an incredible 14 tries in his 23 league starts that year, the 44-year-old had no hesitation when offered the chance to visit his former home in pre-season action.
“Newcastle – what a place,” beamed the Auckland-born back-rower, still a constant in the all-time XV of virtually every single Falcons fan, more than 15 years on from their greatest triumph.
Making no attempt to hide his love of Tyneside, Lam said: “My son started school there and my daughter was born there, so she has a Geordie passport!
“When I looked at Connacht’s possible pre-season options and saw that Newcastle was one of them, I knew it was a trip we had to make.
“Obviously there is the personal angle, with it being my old club and having so many good friends over there, but from the team perspective you always know that any Falcons side is going to give you the sort of hard, honest test that pre-season demands.”
Beaten 42-31 by French champions Castres and 31-7 by London Wasps in their two friendly outings to date, the Galway-based province are using tomorrow’s 3pm kick-off as the final preparation for their Rabodirect Pro 12 opener at home to Italian side, Zebre, on September 7.
“Our previous two games have seen us using the whole player pool and giving everyone a game, but tomorrow we will be narrowing it down to a squad of 26,” said Lam, whose charges are traditionally the poor relations of Ireland’s four professional provinces. “At Connacht you know it is not apples for apples, compared to what the other sides get.
“Our budget is smaller, and we have to fight for everything. We don’t rely on people, and everything is built on togetherness. We don’t have those X-factor players who can operate at 60% and still win games, but what we do have is a bond and a work ethic.”
It is a sentiment with which the current Newcastle squad can probably empathise – shorn of the volume of stars which characterised the Lam era, but driven by desire and graft.
The man himself, when asked his memories of Kingston Park, said enthusiastically: “It was truly a special time to be at the club.
“Rugby had only gone professional in the autumn of 1995, and the Falcons were among the pioneers. I joined up in 1996 for the Second Division season, and we surprised a lot of people.”
Asked what made his side so potent, the former Scotland forwards coach said: “Yeah, there was the recruitment and all of that, but we were a bunch of mates who wanted to work hard for one another.
“We were well-coached by Rob Andrew, Steve Bates and Dean Ryan, and we gelled together as a squad. We trained hard, enjoyed each other’s company, and despite being in the professional era we still had that amateur ethos.
“Whenever I meet people from Newcastle they always talk about that team, and it was a privilege to be part of. Coming back will bring back a lot of memories, and I am delighted the club is back in the Premiership now.
“I was glued to the TV watching their Championship final against Bedford back in May, and cheering them on. It is so good for the whole city, and to have guys like Dean Richards and Peter Russell coaching them is just what they need.”