The man who opened the transatlantic floodgates
Tom Hamilton in Chicago
November 2, 2014
Dan Lyle applauds the Bath faithful following a game in 2002 © Getty Images

In Bath's country pile of a training ground at Farleigh House there is a dash of American inspiration. On one of the walls by the changing room there is a quote from John Wooden - the basketball coach who won 10 college titles from 1964 through to 1975: "Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are."

A couple of weeks ago prior to Bath's game against Toulouse, one of their former number Dan Lyle visited the new training complex and saw the Wooden quote on the wall. While the current crop of players are familiar with their sumptuous surroundings, they are a far cry from their former prehistoric digs at Lambridge where Lyle spent his Bath days caked in mud.

The Aviva Premiership is now accustomed to seeing Americans playing in England's top league - yesterday's match between US Eagles and New Zealand saw five starting - but 18 years ago the emergence of the confident, stateside back-rower Lyle at Bath caused a bit of a stir. "We found the idea rather curious because we had some preconceived ideas that America and rugby didn't go together," Jeremy Guscott said at the time. "Football and America, yes, but not rugby."

Dan Lyle makes some yards for the USA, Spain v USA, Lockhart Stadium, Florida, April 27, 2003
In action in 2003 for the USA © Getty Images

Lyle used the curiosity surrounding him, the oddity, as fuel. "I knew that in training or a game I had to be better than Lawrence Dallaglio, Neil Back or Richard Hill," Lyle told ESPN. "At Bath, when I played well from the start and continued to play well I was accepted. It wasn't about 'why is this American here', perhaps there was a novelty factor to it, but I like to think I could play at that level, consistently. I married a Bath woman and go back there a fair bit."

Lyle's move to Bath in 1996 broke new ground. He, along with Harlequins hooker Tom Billups and lock Luke Gross, were the trailblazers for American rugby in Europe. He had only been playing the game for three years when he made the transatlantic move but rugby and Lyle were the perfect marriage.

When he arrived at Bath, rugby was finding its tentative feet in the new dawn of professionalism. It was rugby's period of enlightenment, bringing a more expansive view on world sport. Players were in demand and the quest to unearth talent became a global venture. A Bath scout spotted him while playing for the USA against Canada and in the blink of an eye he had two offers on the table - one from the Minnesota Vikings to play in the NFL and one from Bath. It was heart over head.

"I got a call from then Bath coach John Hall who asked if I wanted to come over and have a look around," Lyle said. "It was a six-month, one year deal with the potential for extension. By Christmas in 1996, they offered me a multi-year deal. I never looked back at that point.

"Professionalism was different back then and people were working it out. My background in college football meant I knew how to study film, I knew what a playbook was and how to lift weights so I knew the nuts and guts of being a professional.

"I don't miss playing anymore, there's no point missing something you can't do. You miss the big occasions; games like Saturday's in Chicago, you miss that"

"It was a great marriage - I was able to help the seasoned professionals - Guscott, De Glanville, Catt - and they saw me as an athlete, rugby player. Then we got the Tindalls, Balshaws and Borthwicks coming through but with all the coaches we had our transition wasn't great."

While the coaches came and went at Bath - a quick tally saw Lyle work with Clive Woodward, Brian Ashton, John Hall, Andy Robinson, Jon Callard, Michael Foley and John Connolly while at the club - Lyle's resolve and drive remained as competitive as ever. His quarterback-esque throws mid-match from one side of the Recreation Ground became a wonderfully refreshing aspect of the Premiership's early days. He used his American sports background to his advantage in the game.

"I grew up throwing them. We used to play a game in training where you could throw the ball in any direction and you had to get it through a goal. The guys were trying to do long accurate passes or kicking it and I could throw a 50-yard pass so I was doing it in practice all the time. I was never a quarterback, I was a receiver but every American knows how to throw it at some level.

Bath's Dan Lyle faces Biarritz, Biarritz v Bath, Heineken Cup, Biarritz, September 29, 2001
© Getty Images

"I was also a basketball player and I noticed a lot of the guys didn't have skills from chest to tips to their arms so they caught high balls in one manner so I didn't have to jump really to catch it. It was new and different."

And it worked. Lyle established himself as a key part of the Bath side that took the 1998 Heineken Cup but was denied the chance to defend it the following year due to a dispute between the RFU and the body in charge of the tournament.

His crop of players have been and gone at Bath. Lyle's last season at Bath was the 2002-03 campaign, just four of that squad are still playing the game though at pastures new - Matt Stevens, James Hudson, James Scaysbrook and Olly Barkley. When he stood on the touchline for Bath's recent game against Toulouse, he was in the familiar surroundings of the Rec - the battle to redevelop it was in full flight when Lyle ran out for Bath - but it was new faces wearing the famous blue, black and white shirt.

He believes some aspects of the modern game are "incredibly slow" and regarding Bath he wants to see them go out "gangbusters" on a more regular basis. Lyle, now tournament director of the Las Vegas 7s with his company United World Sports, would have had the odd pang of nostalgia when he watched his former side run out in the rebranded European Rugby Champions Cup, but there was no envy.

"I don't miss playing anymore, there's no point missing something you can't do. You miss the big occasions; games like Saturday's in Chicago, you miss that. I'm a has-been, marginal celebrity guy but I'm a sports administrator now."

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.

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