Lam explains how his wife's bravery helped him to propel Saints to Heineken Cup glory

Today marks exactly 20 years since Saints won the Heineken Cup.

By Tom Vickers
Wednesday, 27th May 2020, 7:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 27th May 2020, 12:51 pm
Pat Lam steered Saints to Heineken Cup glory 20 years ago
Pat Lam steered Saints to Heineken Cup glory 20 years ago

A battered and bruised group of players wearing the black, green and gold secured a sensational triumph at Twickenham, edging past Munster 9-8.

Paul Grayson’s three penalties proved enough for glory, providing Saints with what was at that time the greatest moment in the club’s storied history.

Here, No.8 Pat Lam, who moved to Northampton from Newcastle Falcons in 1998 and lifted the trophy on that memorable day in 2000, looks back on it all.

Q: What was it about the Saints vision that attracted you when you joined them from Newcastle?

A: Funny enough there was no plan to go to Northampton at all.

We won the Premiership and things were going well.

The day after, I left to go and play for Samoa in a series and I was coming off the back of the Premiership awards, where I got voted Premiership play of the year.

There were a lot of congratulations, I shook hands with Rob (Andrew) and we agreed I wanted to extend at Newcastle.

My eldest son had just started school and we were loving it at Newcastle so away I went, thinking my next three years were going to be at Newcastle.

But while I was with Samoa I got a phone call and my agent said ‘wow, congrats, you’re going to Northampton’.

I said ‘what happened there, what happened to Newcastle?’.

He said ‘no, no, it’s great - Northampton have paid a record transfer fee and Newcastle have sold you to Northampton’.

I said ‘I don’t want to go to Northampton, I want to stay at Newcastle’ but he told me my contract had tripled.

I said ‘I don’t care, I want to stay at Newcastle’, and it was difficult to take initially because remember we had just come from the amateur days and all of this was new.

It’s obviously an everyday thing in football, but for rugby back then it was an unusual thing to be sold and it took me a while to get over it.

Rob and I had a fall-out on it but the good thing was that our families were close and we ended up sorting it out, and I went back to Newcastle three or four years later.

But it was a blessing in disguise because the guy who bought me was Ian McGeechan.

Begrudgingly I headed down there, but I probably wouldn’t have become a coach if I hadn’t gone there because I learned another new game from Geech and a new way of doing things.

Geech told me he took me there to help out the culture because they had some quality players at Northampton but they were underachievers and they were struggling.

He had a vision of where he wanted them to be, a real culture change and he felt I could make a difference being an outsider in the group.

Q: As you went through the 1999/2000 campaign, did you always believe you could win the Heineken Cup that season?

A: It was always Geech’s dream when we spoke about the vision - he felt Northampton could be a team that could win the Heineken Cup.

When I went there, his vision and the way he wanted the team to play the game was unbelievable and we played some really good rugby.

That first year, when the English teams weren’t involved, it was ironic because we’d just qualified with Newcastle and we weren’t going to be playing, but I was at Northampton.

The previous year, the highest they’d finished was eighth, but we ended up second and qualified for Europe.

It was first past the post in those days and we just missed out to Leicester, but we were playing some unbelievable rugby.

Geech ended up going to Scotland and he had a meeting with what he called his ‘Magnificent Seven’. It was Garry Pagel, Tim Rodber, Paul Grayson, Matt Dawson, Nick Beal and myself and he basically told us he was leaving.

He was involved in bringing in a new coach and there were some big names he mentioned but the year before we had been playing some rugby that we had a really good understanding of and we didn’t really want to change that.

The other option was an unknown but known to the club and that was John Steele so if we could bring John in, a lot of us could still run a lot of what was going on and we could continue to develop the way we were playing.

We came into that year very confident that if we could get a really good run we could get to the latter stages and once you get to the finals you’re in with a chance.

Q: You are obviously a coach these days, do you see a lot of Ian McGeechan and John Steele in the way you work?

A: Certainly a lot of Geech. He’s been a massive mentor to me.

He took me under his wing and in my last year of playing he brought me into the Scotland setup so I had a playing contract and a coaching contract.

His way of thinking about the game really challenged me around continuity, around angles and lines and getting in behind the defence line and pouring through, letting the ball carrier determine where he wants to go and getting the support to read him.

I learned so much from him and in my first year at Bristol we played Yorkshire in the Championship and Geech was there involved with them and I asked him to come and talk to the team.

We won convincingly and he enjoyed the way we played and I said ‘mate, that’s a lot of the stuff I got from you’.

I asked him to come into the dressing room and he was a little bit shocked initially but it was massive for our team when Geech came in and spoke to our players. They had a lot of respect for him.

Q: What do you remember about the build-up to the final against Munster in 2000?

A: I go back to why Geech brought me in to work with some guys and the culture of our team completely changed from where we had cliques and different groups to where we all did things together.

I remember holding a ‘70s party and everyone was invited. It held us in great stead.

We weren’t playing the best rugby but against Wasps it was 22-22 and we got a penalty to make it 25-22.

Against Llanelli we were down by about 10 or 12 points and we fought our way back. Paul Grayson had a kick in about the 83rd minute at 28-28 and we won 31-28.

We got to the final and we were pretty beaten up.

We had injuries, Matt Dawson was out, Nick Beal was out and we knew this was the last game.

We had been fighting on all three fronts but we lost the cup final the Wasps, we just managed to qualify to get into Europe for the next year and we knew this was one last effort.

But one of the things I knew was that our culture would bring us through if we could get right down to the wire.

It was a great example because you could get to the play-offs and finals but you were going to need culture and leadership to make sure your game could get through.

Q: What inspired your brilliant personal performance in the final at Twickenham?

A: Bath were the only ones who had won it as an English club and the Heineken Cup was the ultimate and this was everything we had talked about and we had got there.

We only trained once and it was hard because we were pretty beaten up.

I remember my fourth child was born on the Wednesday before the game and he was actually due on the day of the final.

Once we knew we were in the final I said to my wife that she would have to be prepared that I wouldn’t be there - because me and my wife have home births.

We had a contingency plan just in case I wasn’t going to make it.

But if it came down to being at the final or at the birth of my son, I said I’d be there.

Thankfully he arrived on the Wednesday.

When you have a home birth my wife took no painkillers and I remember saying at the time publicly it was touch and go with me and my shoulder for the final but then I saw the pain she went through to deliver the baby.

In that build-up to the game and in my quiet moment, all of my thoughts were about my wife and my son.

I said to myself ‘if she can do that, I can do this’. I shouldn’t say it was similar but I knew if I put everything into it, there was going to be an unbelievable prize to enjoy.

We had a two-month break after the game so I could get surgery to sort my shoulder out and I thought ‘if it goes, it goes’.

Thankfully I just got the ball early and I went for it.

Q: When did what you had achieved finally sink in?

A: I remember the Munster supporters were unbelievable as well as the Northampton supporters at the ground.

They were obviously a fantastic team and they were disappointed to lose.

I remember they beat Saracens twice and they had an unbelievable semi-final against Toulouse so they were certainly the favourites.

There were 40,000 Munstermen who came over and they were unbelievable at that game. I had a real affinity with Munster after that.

I remember we went back to Franklin’s Gardens and all our fans were back there.

Then we had the street parade and that was when it really hit me that we’d done something special.

It was a first major trophy for the club in 127 years in the town of Northampton, which really is a bit in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by other places. It was voted not the prettiest place to be, but what we did as a group to inspire that town and the memory we had from that was awesome.

It was a real privilege to be part of that.

On my own journey, I’ll always have fond memories of that.