Carwyn James was the Brian Clough of rugby: a brilliant coach who never managed his national team, but who was right at the heart of the golden age of Welsh rugby.
Back in the days when rugby was still an amateur game (which meant he didn’t get paid), James was the coach all the players wanted to play for – and all the other coaches secretly wanted to be.
He is still the only coach to lead a victorious Lions tour of New Zealand. In fact, he made a habit of beating the otherwise all-conquering All Blacks. He beat them with his club side, Llanelli, in 1973. A few months later, in perhaps his greatest triumph, he beat them with a scratch Barbarians side in a legendary encounter in Cardiff.
Before the Barbarians game kicked off, James wandered over to have a quiet word with Phil Bennett, his gifted, but nervous, young fly-half.
‘You’ve got a lovely sidestep, Phil’, he said. ‘But I don’t suppose you’ll use it today. Which is a shame, really. These All Blacks were built to be side-stepped. I reckon you could side-step them off the park.’
A few minutes into the game, the All Blacks kicked the ball deep into the Barbarians’ half. Bennett caught it near his own goal-line and looked up to see three All Blacks bearing menacingly down on him.
In a moment of breathtaking brilliance, he side-stepped all three and began a daring counter-attack, which resulted in a try still regarded by most rugby lovers, even 45 years later, as the greatest ever scored.
It’s a moment that perfectly sums up what made Carwyn James so successful: brilliant tactical insight, combined with a willingness to let his players express themselves – and the great gift of making them feel confident enough to do it.
He made it look effortless but, in fact, he worked very hard at it. Long before video analysis became fashionable, James used to spend hours poring over old newsreel footage of his adversaries, working out what made them tick and where to find the chinks in their armour.
But he never burdened his players with any of that detail. He told them what he’d worked out and which areas they needed to focus on. Then he gave them the freedom and confidence to make the most of his insight and their talents. He made it simple.
That’s why his players loved him. And why the crowds would always flock to watch any team he was coaching.
Sadly, Carwyn James died in 1983, when he was just 53. If he were still alive today, though, it’s a safe bet that he would be earning a very comfortable living as an ‘empowerment’ guru.
You hear a lot of businesses talk about empowerment these days.
The trouble is: most of the people who work in those businesses are so busy trying to follow the manual that they never have a chance to show off their sidestep.
Matt is the author of tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture, which explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. He’s also written inside: the 10 communication secrets that will transform your business.
If you’d like a free copy of either book, pop in to The Forge (we might even make you a coffee…)