AUCKLAND BLUES coach Pat Lam is still ruing the day that Isa Nacewa pulled on a Fiji jersey for the dying moments of a 2003 World Cup game he believes cost the Leinster star at least 50 caps as an All Black.
Leinster’s player of the season Nacewa will be the last line of defence and one of the many points of attack in Joe Schmidt’s side which faces a Northampton Saints club in today’s Heineken Cup final that Lam captained to the same trophy at Munster’s expense in 2000.
And for the former Samoan back-rower, Leinster are benefiting at Auckland’s expense because of that fateful decision to choose the land of his ancestors rather than his country of birth.
“Isa’s so good. He’s a big loss to us, we won the NPC championship with him in 2005 and 2007 and a lot of the players would love to have him back,” Lam told The Irish Examiner this week.
“Like a lot of the boys down here, the All Blacks is the ambition but Isa’s future was decided by the three minutes he played for Fiji. He was born here in New Zealand but got caught out with those three minutes and unfortunately that meant he had to leave here. He probably didn’t realise what the consequences were but back then in 2003 it was a World Cup and he was only a young guy then and the All Blacks were way over the horizon.
“If he hadn’t have done that he’d have ended up with 50 caps for the All Blacks and he’d be a regular there and still playing with the Blues. But c’est la vie, it’s great to see him doing well.
He’s got a lovely family and he’s a great man and a great character and the perfect guy to have on your team. He is a real team man on and off the field.”
Lam, though, will be supporting his old club Northampton from afar when today’s final kicks off. And in the Saints’ domestic setback last weekend in losing their Aviva Premiership semi-final at arch east midlands rivals Leicester, he detects several parallels with the team he led out at Twickenham on the way to a 9-8 win over Munster 11 years ago.
“Northampton are in a similar situation to what we went through before the 2000 final. We went in as underdogs and had nothing to lose. They lost to Leicester in the semi-final last weekend and we had just lost what was then the Tetley Bitter Cup final and been knocked out at the tail end of the Premiership. We lost Matt Dawson and I was touch and go to play and a few others had knocks whereas Munster seemed to be better prepared.
“So the talk was of a battered Northampton team up against a fiery Munster team lead by Keith Wood and Mick Galwey and we were struggling. But I remember us pulling guys in and saying to them, ‘listen, we’ve been going well all year, we just have to front up one more time’. We were all in agreement that we’d scrum well and we knew what we had to do, we knew all the talk was that Northampton were embattled and weary and that the club had been going 128 years and never won anything and it all pointed to us just giving it our all and we did. It was a real ding-dong battle both ways, no inch given but it was the biggest final in Europe and we just hung in there and gutsed it out — 9-8, a classic final,” said Lam with a chuckle.
“So it’s pretty similar to what these boys are going through and they’ve nothing to lose. I hope they can do it and they can if they play to their potential but in finals it’s a matter of which players deal with the pressure.”
Lam said the current Saints team were in good hands under the present coaching setup at Franklin’s Gardens, adding: “Jim Mallinder and Dorian West have done a great job up there. When I saw them back in November they were on a real roll and I know they had a bit of a slump but they’ve come back strong.
“They’ve got a strong forward pack, England internationals throughout the team and they’ve a pretty well-balanced team that can play. Against a good Leinster side it should be a great game.”
The former Saints captain has stayed in touch with the club and its owner Keith Barwell and during the New Zealand summer he ventured north with one of his sons and paid a visit to Franklin’s Gardens and the town where another son, Josiah, was born.
“Keith Barwell invited us to watch Northampton play London Irish and I got a nice standing ovation from the crowd before the game and caught up with a lot of friends and a had good night out. They’ve been through some tough times and it’s great to see them right back there.”
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