WHAT WOULD BE YOUR ONE, ABIDING MEMORY OF THE RUGBY SEASON JUST GONE? HOW ABOUT LAST WEEK’S CHAMPIONSHIP FINAL, SO TENSE THAT WORCESTER SUPPORTERS ARE STILL LYING DOWN IN A DARK ROOM AFTER THEIR LAST GASP WIN AGAINST BRISTOL.
Danielle Lamb couldn’t watch. Hunched up next to her mother in the Sixways stand last Wednesday evening, it was tough enough just remembering to breathe. ‘I was sort of squinting through my fingers and trying to look the other way’, she says. ’I remember Ryan running up and kicking it, closing my eyes and screaming at my Mum, is it over, is it over?’ As the stadium erupted, Mum’s reply was lost in a crescendo of confirmation.
Down on the pitch Danielle’s husband appeared to have mislaid his marbles. Eyes bulging, nostrils flaring, Ryan Lamb was a bull in search of a china shop, wheeling this way, whirling that way in a demented, bellow of delight as a swarm of rapturous team-mates chased him back and forth across the pitch. Hot on his tail too was Danielle who’d tumbled down from the stands and into the midst of the mayhem to try to get her hands on her hero of a husband. Happily, marriage does confer some privileges, which is how she managed to jump the lawless queue of back-slappers, pogo-dancers, head-huggers and inebriates and fling her arms around her boy in a one-woman lasso. ‘I was so relieved,’ she says. ‘I don’t know why but I just said, ‘imagine if you’d missed it …..’’
Even now, seven days away on another page of the calendar, that is a thought – a plaintive cri de coeur – to make a strong man shiver. Frankly, the consequences of Ryan Lamb ‘missing it’ – and thereby failing to convert his team into a Premiership side with the last shot of the Championship Final – would have been grotesque. Make no mistake, we are talking shave your head and leave town and that, without any question, is the defining measure of just how courageous a kick it was and just how succinctly Danielle Lamb had summed it up in five, terrifying words.
Could you imagine – really – your team reaching into the very depths of its soul to claw back a calamitous, fourteen-point deficit in the last, febrile five minutes of the season and you then missing the sitter to seal the deal? It gets worse. Could you imagine climbing onto the coach next September for the first away game of the season knowing that you – and you alone – are the reason the driver’s heading south down the M5 towards Cornwall and not north up the M5 towards Leicester? Could you imagine – God forbid – being condemned to the ignominious immortality of the InterWeb as the putz who missed a point blank shot at the Premiership? No, neither could I and – much more importantly – neither could Ryan Lamb.
‘I never thought for a second I was going to miss it’, he says of the most brutal kick of his life. ‘Mind you, the hardest thing about it was how easy it was. What was it, ten, fifteen metres left of centre? Trust me, you kick a hundred and fifty of those every week in practice but, even so, once it went over, I was a headless chicken. Never mind the kick, it was the most extraordinary end to a game I can ever remember.’
It certainly was and, to his credit, Ryan Lamb cannot be accused of prolonging the agony. Normally his kicking routine is, well, just that, routine: plonk down the tee, plant the ball, line up the logo, three steps back, a big breath, a frown at the ball’s backside, a peer at the posts, another frown at the ball’s backside, another peer at the posts, one step, two steps, commit to the last stride, weight through the strike, hips square, head down and thank you very much. Usually, it’s thirty to forty seconds of very well-rehearsed application. The kick that took Worcester into the Promised Land took just fourteen.
‘I just didn’t want to think about it any longer than I had to,’ says Lamb. ‘Chris Pennell stole five yards on the touchdown, which was smart thinking, and I went over and grabbed the ball from him. I don’t know why but I just needed to have it in my hands and get away from everyone, be on my own. Afterwards they were all asking why I’d dragged it back to the twenty-two but I didn’t want to get charged down. Normally it’d be a six iron, even from that close but I was thinking, take a nine iron, just chip it over; one step, no, two steps, bang, and it came off the boot really nice. From there on, I was in shock. Really, it was like a car crash. I couldn’t speak. I was lost for a couple of minutes.’
Ryan Lamb’s kicking coach is the former Northampton and England gem, Paul Grayson, who was on holiday in Sardinia last week and following all the drama via text messages, which meant that, unlike the rest of us, he didn’t have to spend the last five minutes of the game behind the sofa with his fingers in his ears. Watching the denouement online for the first time this week, though, he was astonished at Lamb’s self-possession, his presence of mind to abbreviate, to improvise and to keep cucumber cool in the whitest of heat.
‘Obviously, I knew the kick had gone over before I actually got to sit down and see it but, blimey, I was still watching with one eye closed,’ he says. ‘It was quick, wasn’t it? Then again, it’s incredible where the brain goes to when you’re on the edge of your experience. You take too long and you can get in your own way; think of Jonny Sexton in that Ireland game against the All Blacks. It’s almost as though you can’t quite pull the trigger. That’s Ryan, though. He has so much natural talent.’
No question there are times when cojones of cast iron are worth ten tons of technique and Ryan Lamb’s sang-froid was all the more remarkable given that a week earlier in the First Leg of the Championship Final at Ashton Gate, he couldn’t hit a cow’s backside with a banjo. ‘I’d taken so much stick from the lads,’ he says, ‘but that’s the way it goes. It was like I was kicking dead fish. But you have to laugh and get on with it and remember next week’s another week. And, to be honest, every kicker wants to be in that position with the game on the line and one shot to win it. That’s why you become a kicker in the first place.’
Intriguingly, Lamb is an enthusiastic golfer and certainly he has a golfer’s – or more accurately, a professional golfer’s – knack of being able to park the crap shots. Were you or I to miss a two-footer for a double bogey on the tenth green, we’d still be kicking the heads off daisies halfway down the fourteenth fairway. But had the imperturbable Ryan Lamb done exactly the same thing – trust me – he’d have simply wandered to the eleventh tee, uncorked the driver and striped his ball two and seventy-five yards straight down the short stuff. Certainly last Wednesday evening Dean Ryan had no doubts whatsoever.
‘Once Chris Pennell went over for the try I was out of my seat and on my way down the stairs to the tunnel,’ says the Worcester Director of Rugby, a man who’s shared ten years of hard love with his mercurial fly half and who – very possibly – understands Ryan Lamb better than Ryan Lamb. ‘So, no, I didn’t see the kick and I didn’t need to because I knew he’d get it. Why? Because he was so bloody awful last week. The thing about Ryan is that he has no baggage. He doesn’t hang onto anything. He’d never kick that badly two weeks in a row.’
If that’s a gift, it’s a priceless one, although, in saying that, the ‘Worcester News’ last week had ‘The Kick’ valued at a cool twenty million quid; at least, that was the 131pt headline on Friday’s front page, qualified somewhat by the smaller print underneath which conceded that the dividend might be ‘up to twenty million over five years.’ Hey, let’s not quibble. Here was a conversion which, palpably, gruesomely, had rather more riding on it than just two points.
‘Look, I wouldn’t want to put a figure on what promotion’s worth,’ says an unusually coy Dean Ryan, ’but however we’ve got there, it’s more than timely. If the Premiership really is going to expand to fourteen at the end of next season then I can now pitch the club to new players as a two or three year proposition rather than a twelve month fling. Alternatively we don’t even have to dive into the market at all. We can bide our time. That’s a huge bonus for us in the longer term.’
In the shorter term, Mr. and Mrs. Ryan Lamb are off to Las Vegas later this week with their good friends, Mr. and Mrs. Topsy Ojo, where, removed and relaxed, perhaps it will all sink in and Ryan can finally allow himself – in Danielle’s words – to ‘imagine if he’d missed it’. But then again, perhaps not. When you juggle hedgehogs for a living, the very last thing you want to do is starting thinking about the spikes.
02 JUNE 2015