A tale of two rookie coaching rivals

Last updated 14:01 03/03/2009

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They are coaching teams in the Super 14 that are fierce rivals, but New Zealand rugby needs both Pat Lam, with the Blues, and Todd Blackadder, with the Crusaders, to succeed.

The player drain to Europe and Japan gets the headlines, but the coaching drain is just as significant, and 37-year-old Blackadder and 40-year-old Lam are potentially massive parts of our coaching future.

Superficially, they could hardly be more different.

Pat Lam is a city kid. He grew up in Avondale, Auckland, the son of Samoan immigrants who arrived in 1966. He started school at the time of the dawn raids in the 1970s, when honest, hard-working people such as his parents ran the risk of being stopped in the street and quizzed by police because of the colour of their skin. "Friesians stand out in a herd of jerseys," said sensitive police minister Allan McCready at the time.

Todd Blackadder is the epitome of a north Canterbury country boy, born in Rangiora, and raised largely at Woodend. When Lam was playing backyard footy and softball with numerous cousins at his grandmother's home in Westmere, Blackadder was eeling at his grandparents' farm with his brothers.

Blackadder spent one memorable school holiday, when he was 15, working on a crayfish boat in the Chatham Islands. From the time he was 12, Lam spent his summers in Samoa, at Nofoali'i, his mother's village, or Matasele, his father's.

At school, Lam was a superstar rugby player, in the First XV at St Peter's College in the fourth form, the captain of New Zealand Schools, and picked by Graham Henry for the Auckland Colts while still a schoolboy.

Blackadder trialled for, but didn't make, the Rangiora High School First XV. His breakthrough came when he went to work on a farm in Collingwood, and as an 18-year-old played alongside grizzled farm workers in their 30s. Within a year he was in the 1990 New Zealand Colts side in Australia.

Here's where the differences start to evaporate, increasingly replaced by common ground. From the start of their careers both men brought a certain gravitas to the plate, not a quality every young player carries.

It was quickly obvious they were natural leaders, a quality recognised without either being loud or pushy. In 1990, when he was playing for Manu Samoa at his first world cup, I remember Lam mostly as a smiling figure happy to be in the background. Blackadder was initially so spooked by the spotlight that when Canterbury won the Ranfurly Shield in 1994 in Hamilton, he tried to dash for the showers to avoid a brief television interview.

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Both are men of innate decency, with impeccable manners, although it would be a mistake to believe that as coaches they wouldn't be capable of blasting a slacker.

Once when Lam was playing for Northampton in Britain he was so outraged at the way senior players slagged youngsters for mistakes that at halftime he snarled: "If anyone out there swears at someone else in this team, anyone, I'll come in and I'll drop you on the spot."

Stunned into silence, the players went out, buttoned their lips, and won.

Former Crusaders still remember a moment when a young player was blasted by trainer Mike Anthony for being late to a gym session.

Stung by the dressing down, the player made the mistake of turning to friendly Uncle Toddy and moaning that in other jobs five minutes would be neither here nor there. "If that's how you feel," said Blackadder, "why don't you piss off right now and find a job that pays like this one and lets you arrive late." As Blackadder would later say of life inside the Crusaders, "it's not all pretty words".

Mostly though, Lam and Blackadder will be measured, and they'll need all the balance they bring to their lives to deal with the massive expectations that come with their roles.

As men, and team builders, I have no doubt they'll measure up to the challenge. What will be fascinating as the season goes on is how they adjust tactically to coaching at a level new to both.

* FOOTNOTE: If you like "not many people know that" notes, they've actually played together for the Crusaders (in 1996) and for New Zealand (at the first sevens world cup in Scotland in 1993).

How do you think the two coaches will fare in this year's Super 14? Post your comments below.

- Sunday Star Times

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