Halfway through this meaty autobiography, Warren Gatland, a confident and successful individual, comes across a figure he’s not entirely sure about - something called “the head of performance analysis and insight”.
Although describing this person as “outstanding” in his contribution to the Welsh national side, and the role of technological intrusions in his sport as inevitable, data sets and spreadsheets are not what has made Gatland the great improvisational coach of Ireland, Wales and the British Lions.
The Gatland school of thought is more thus: start with a bedrock of fitness, discipline and attitude, then find room for “instinct, for gut feeling, for the ability to reject orthodoxy and back hunch”. And having won, go for a beer.
You can measure aerobic capacity all you like, he says, “but it is difficult to know how the fittest of individuals will perform once they’ve taken a smack on the nose at the first ruck”.
Indeed, his chances of ever being a Ted-talking, CEO-in-waiting, flip chart and iPad type of coach were slim from the get-go.
Born in Hamilton, New Zealand, in 1963, he started playing rugby barefoot. And that was “proper rugby, not ‘tag’ or ‘touch’… always 15 players on each team, every one of them knocking lumps out of each other”.
Those were the days when a good spear tackle was applauded rather than severely punished, and after being knocked unconscious in one game and not knowing quite who he was sharing a field with, “It was up to me to come round quickly and get on with it”.
In his playing career, he was unlucky to have an even more granite hooker – Sean Fitzpatrick – ahead of him in the All Black pecking order and never went further than the bench against international opposition.
But his keen underdog spirit, amicable approach and innate ability to spot a team’s weaknesses and apply good ideas to fixing them really flourished when he became player-coach for Galwegians in the west of Ireland.
Fortunately, he had solutions in abundance, as the team only possessed two balls at the time (and one of them was flat), and the weather on the Atlantic coast was often so bitter the players had to rub each others’ backs to kickstart the circulation.
His ideas proved so transformative, however, that coaching jobs – and glory – with Connaught, Ireland and Wales followed.
That natural rugby sense and willingness to back himself doesn’t pay off every time, but it only adds to his likability when he admits to his failures, such as when encouraging a pasty Irish touring side to boost their confidence with fake tan against South Africa.
When Paddy Johns, “the toughest of Ulstermen… ran on to the field in Bloemfontein, his face was bright orange,” he says. “It was like witnessing a second sunrise.” Johns is apparently yet to forgive him.
Yet amid the occasional farce, there is a lot of rugby, which coach Gatland is happy to describe in rich detail. Indeed, he gives the impression that “My Autobiography” could easily have stretched to several volumes, such is his command of the detail surrounding games.
For all his easy-going, let’s-have-a-Guinness, man-of-the-people charm though, he is more than capable of picking a squabble, with clueless administrators and the double-dealing press with their so-called “journalism” two of his more frequent targets.
But as rugby is sometimes also the pinnacle of perverse bloody-mindedness, there are some confrontations that not even the astute Gatland can come out on top of.
In 2017, after the Lions’ heroically tied series against the All Blacks, he found himself talking to one of the Welsh members of the victorious 1971 Lions tour to New Zealand, who described how he jumped up and shouted at the final whistle when Gatland’s team achieved their draw in the concluding match.
“I felt really happy that our success in squaring the series had brought him such pleasure,” says Gatland. But for once he’s misread an opponent. The old boy was happy Gatland hadn’t won, because that meant “We’re still the only team to have won a Lions Test series down there in New Zealand”. Cheers, mate.
This article was first published in The Sportsman on 19/01/20