Pat Lam looking forward to catching up with old friends
Connacht coach settling in to life in Galway but heart remains in Samoa
Pat Lam had only just settled into life in Galway when he bumped into a few Samoans around town. He hadn’t expected to find any compatriots other than Rodney Ah You and James So’oialo. “But then anywhere I have gone in the world, Samoans pop up,” he grins. “They get around the place.”
Lam is so immersed in European rugby right now that he doesn’t have much time to think about the international game. He is still in training gear when he opens his office door in the Sportsground, trying to squeeze in a half hour of paperwork before a Sky television interview about Connacht’s exceptional performance against Saracens and an upcoming visit to Zebre – in which they would go on to record their first Heineken Cup win for Lam.
But he agrees that he is looking forward to the visit of Samoa, all the more so because the international happens to coincide with a visit of his parents to Galway. “So we got tickets and it’s great to be able to go.” Lam’s parents were among the generation of Samoans who moved en masse to New Zealand in the 1960s.
New Zealand system
It was redolent of the pattern of emigration which marked the relationship between Ireland and England but with none of the attendant antagonism between the two countries. All of Samoa’s great rugby players came up through the New Zealand school and club system and it was rugby, he points out, which helped to establish Samoa in the eyes of most people.
When Lam is asked about the highlight of his sporting life, he quickly settles on the 1991 World Cup when he travelled with Western Samoa for what felt like a debut appearance on the world stage. “That tournament put Samoa on the map,” he says. Four years earlier, the country had been snubbed when the IRB failed to extend an invitation to the inaugural World Cup, a slight felt all the more keenly as it took place in New Zealand.
Western Samoa had to qualify for the next competition and there was a big internal push to ensure the team made it. Domestic rugby was piecemeal but superb players like Steve Bachop and Frank Bunce had committed to the national team and they had an excellent coaching staff.
Prior to the World Cup, the only full tier international that the Samoans had ever played was against Wales. On October 6th, 1991, they performed their ritual Siva Tau in the Cardiff Arms Park and then produced one of the great shocks in world rugby by beating their hosts 16-13.
Just like that, the Samoans provided the jolt of unexpectedness and newness that the competition needed. They held Australia, the eventual winners, to three Michael Lynagh penalties in a 9-3 defeat before turning on the style with a 35-12 win over Argentina which set them up for a quarter-final against Scotland.
“People in Samoa were heading to the stadium at three in the morning to watch live broadcasts. You had 30,000 people turning up there. And we got images of that back in our hotel. And the hotel fax was getting non-stop messages. That really drove us on. That is when it felt as if there was a legitimate option to play for Samoa. Tours and invitations followed and the national team has just gotten stronger and stronger and in terms of professionalism, some of the Samoan boys in France and Europe are earning as much money as the All-Blacks.
Heart and spirit
“And we broke into a top six ranking not so long ago. The one thing you can’t underestimate with Samoa is what they have here in Connacht too – that is heart and spirit. When the boys get together, it is special. In 1991 you had guys like Frank Bunce and Stephen Bachop – players in key positions who could direct things. We had good coaches and we surprised a lot of people.” It ended with a 28-6 defeat against Scotland but afterwards, the Samoans gave a farewell lap.