Warren Gatland has been around the block enough to know not to get sucked in by the flash stuff a rugby player does on the field but the work they put in and the contribution to the team effort they make.
Which is why he has continued to pick Jack Conan as his British & Irish Lions Test No.8 and ignored the clamour for glamour that resides within his nearest rivals, Sam Simmonds and Taulupe Faletau.
Both those players are equally proven at Test level and in Faletau’s case, for the Lions and Gatland on two previous tours. Welshman Faletau has been promoted to the bench for this Saturday’s second Test against the Springboks, replacing Hamish Watson as back-row cover but the head coach likes what he sees in Conan, his leading carrier in the first-Test win over the world champions last Saturday in a well-balanced back row also featuring Courtney Lawes at blindside flanker and Tom Curry at openside.
“I just think that he’s kind of been unheralded a little bit,” Gatland said of Conan. “Some people sometimes look for the spectacular stuff. It’s not something I do.
“I looked at all the things he did well and he doesn’t make many mistakes, his carrying was excellent, his footwork was good. He was very, very solid. He didn’t miss any tackles. As a loose forward trio, they can get better and you want to keep that combination.
“Toby (Faletau) can have an impact coming off the bench. Sometimes you make changes, but we were very pleased with the way Jack played last weekend.”
Conan, 28, agreed with Gatland’s assessment that he had been very nervous before his Lions debut in the pre-tour game against Japan at Murrayfield on June 26 but was a picture of calmness before his Test debut last Saturday.
“Yeah, and it’s probably pretty accurate comments from Gats. I was pretty nervous in that Japan week; obviously new combinations, first game with the lads, first game in a red jersey, first game for me since the 2019 World Cup where I had family and friends at a game so I was pretty nervous for that one.
“Last week, being able to prep for the whole week and not having a Wednesday-Saturday fixture with those short turnarounds, I was pretty nervous on Monday and Tuesday early on, but then we got out and trained and I trained well and I took a lot of confidence from it.
“Come Saturday, I was just ready to go. I thought to myself ‘this is it, this is going to be the moment, there’s no point being nervous. You’ve just got to go out there and be physical.’ And I loved it out there, I really did.
“It was hugely enjoyable and to come out on the right side of a performance was great and looking forward to doing the same again.”
Conan’s confidence has also been boosted by Gatland’s praise for his mistake-free performance, the Leinster and Ireland back-rower adding: “At this level, it’s just about doing the basics really, really well and being consistent. It’s great to hear those words from Gats but if I do go out and make a mistake, I’m kinda at peace with it now. It’s just part of the game so if I go out and make one or two this weekend, I won’t be kicking myself. It’s just about not backing that up with another mistake, getting on with the job, and being the player the team needs me to be.”