By STEVE MASCORD
“IT’S grim mate. Mud bath game awaits”.
So your correspondent was warned by text as he made his way through the sodden streets of Barrow to Craven Park (now called the Matt Johnson Prestige Stadium) on Saturday for the local team’s friendly against Wigan.
I’ve been to most of the major rugby league grounds in Britain but never here – I don’t think I’d even been to Barrow before. Paying my 15 quid at the creaking turnstile, my friend’s warning was accurate – but far from comprehensive.
It was grim. It was a mud bath. It did feel like I had stepped out of a time machine and landed in 1919, the old rusty popular stand on my left heaving with people dressed in dark colours and roaring as men dipped head-to-toe in liquid earth collided in the middle of the pitch. A four-metres scoot was a length-of-the-field try in today’s wretched currency.
But the illumination from the old floodlights, the shadow of the ancient stands and the fists in the air of the hardy speccies made this something more. Lee Hicken would give his baseball cap for such an authentic, gothic, Victorian canvas for his movie making.
I start buying a couple of beers (one plastic bottle overflows and is proffered for free from the tiny concession cabin), move the stand on one end that still boasts a roof, and work my way around to the Popular Stand where a bacon cheese burger awaits and the terraces are bone dry after the first three steps from the front.
In the end, a clean-as-a-whistle trainer runs onto the rice paddy pitch and orders Barrow’s Jamie Dallimore to take a penalty shot with less than two minutes left and we get an 18-16 draw. That’s like a victory to two and a half thousand locals, who then try to squeeze into the tiny corner bar where the man of the match award will later be presented.
And on the wall in that bar is a Wigan jersey – of exactly the style and design that Adrian Lam wore in his 119 games with the club between 2001 and 2004.
And Lam, not be co-incidence (otherwise I wouldn’t have mentioned that small detail) is our Mascord Meets subject this week.
Nine days earlier, Lam had told the pre-match luncheon at the Capital Challenge, Honourable Artillery Company, London, that his friends had told him he was on a hiding to nothing taking over at the Super League champions …. that he must be “crazy”.
Of course, next year he is replaced by Shaun Edwards – regardless of how good or bad he fairs.
“I’ve known from the start this is the situation so I’ve embraced it completely,” Lam tells us at the Super League launch.
“I’ve been asked ‘what if you get offered to extend here and assist with Shaun, would I stay?’ Or, ‘what if I get offered a Super League coaching job from another club?’.
“My answer is that I’m not even going to consider that until June, July, August – you know?”
But surely he has to know where he’ll be and what he’ll be doing next year (come to think of it, I have no idea what I’ll be doing in 2020 but still…)?
“People are talking about it being a transition year at Wigan at the moment, in the media. That sort of doesn’t sit well with me because how do you tell the Sean O’Loughlins and the Tommy Leuiluais if they’re retiring that this a transition year?
“‘Sorry mate, in your last year, it’s a transition year’. We’ve already been ranked three on the betting table. It shows people don’t think we can win this year – which is good, which is fine.
“We’ve got a lot to prove.
“We’ve tried to take out what worked in 2018 and marry that up with what my beliefs are. Our leadership group have certainly responded to that. We’ve trained really well.”
The main gist of my chat with Adrian was around the World Club Challenge against his former club Sydney Roosters (146 games). He said on stage at the Super League launch he had some different coaching philosophies to his predecessor Shaun Wane.
“We’ve had a pretty small pre-season preparation,” he explains.
“We’ve had all our internationals coming back the week before Christmas. They’ve only been in for three or four weeks so we’re just trying to keep it as simple as possible.
“Whilst there’s going to be some flamboyance come in … they might be in that week, actually. It might be in for the week of the World Club Challenge. You’ll see the ball get thrown around a fair bit!”
I’ve covered a lot of World Club Challenge build-ups. Plenty of coaches of English teams have said they watched the previous year’s NRL grand final and saw tactical glitches they could exploit.
Some succeeded. Others didn’t.
“Our first four weeks of the season are pretty hectic,” he said. “We’ve got St Helens away, Leeds at home, the World Club Challenge then Hull… who do you focus on? I’m trying to stick to the big picture stuff.
“But I’ve got a good understanding of how they play. I think there’s some areas there we can work on but they’re a great side, mate. They’ve probably been the in-form teams for the past couple of years.
“They’ll come here with a lot of confidence. They’ve had a few changes with their personnel. So have we. We’re down 800 Super League matches between Ryan Sutton, John Bateman – who’ve gone to Canberra – and Sam Tomkins who’s gone to Catalans.
“So I think we just have to concentrate on ourselves and come up with a formula that can be competitive in all four matches.”
Lam has settled in well if his answer to the question about whether he’d like two referees on the 17th is anything to go by. He wants whatever will aid Wigan.
“I hope it snows!” he says with a chuckle.
“I hope it hails! I hope there’s one referee and I hope it’s as cold as anything.I think the one referee will suit. Our team’s not really used to the two referees so I think we’d more easily adapt to one.”