I have been thinking about this subject for some time, and started to put my thoughts down on paper about three months ago. Here are those thoughts.

Captaincy

The art (or is it science?) of captaincy has been the subject of enormous debate over the years. What is the role of the captain in a team? What makes a good captain? What makes a great captain? What position should a captain play? How should a captain be chosen?

I guess that there are just as many opinions and just as many answers as there are people interested in the subject.

Let’s start the debate by looking at the ideal position for a captain. Should the captain be a forward or a back? Should the captain be a tight forward or a loose forward?

In a recent poll conducted on another rugby website, the majority thought that the captain should be a forward. The most votes suggested he should be a flank or No.8. The majority was not as large as I would have guessed, only 60% felt the captaincy should go to a forward, while 40% felt that a backline player was better equipped to captain a team.

There is a fairly large group that suggested that forwards are too focused on their jobs and do not necessarily have wider view or the vision to be successful captains.

Of course this statement flies in the face of history!

Think of some of the great captains in recent history, Sean Fitzpatrick, John Smit, Andy Dalton, and Keith Woods were all hookers. Kevin Mealamu had three games as captain of the AB’s also from the hooking position.

Martin Johnson and John Eales are RWC winning captains from the lock position. Going back a bit further you have the great Colin Meads and Willie-John McBride at lock, and more recently Victor Matfield has done a good job when he has taken on the captaincy role for South Africa, while Paul O’Connell scalped both the Boks and the Aussies just two months ago.

Great captains amongst the loosies abound. None other than Richie McCall comes to mind immediately. Morne du Plessis, Jean-Pierre Rives, Gary Teichmann, Wynand Claasen, Andre Vos, Corne Krige, Thierry Dusautoir, Bob Skinstad, Michael Hooper, David Pocock, Sam Warburton are just a few other names that spring to mind. Of course, Francois Pienaar wore the No.6 when South Africa won the World Cup in 1995.

Hannes Marais as a captain from the prop position, had a fairly good record too, winning six out of eleven, and it must be emphasized that he had the misfortune of leading the Boks against arguably the best touring side ever in the game, the 1974 British and Irish Lions.

Drifting out from the forwards we get to scrumhalf captains. The legendary Danie Craven will be first to mind amongst the older generations and the true traditionalists of the game. Although he only captained the Boks on four occasions, with a 50% win/loss ratio, it was as a coach and administrator that he showed his true leadership qualities. Interesting that he first captained the Boks as a fly-half, losing to New Zealand 13 to 7 back in August 1937. All his other captaincy games were against the British Lions in 1938, as scrumhalf.

Other scrumhalves that come to mind are Georgie Gregan, Will Genia, Joost van der Westhuizen, Nick Farr-Jones, David Kirk, both the latter as RWC winning captains. Dawie de Villiers and Divan Serfontein were another two Bok captains. Jacques Fouroux, Yachvilli, Galthie, Sanz, Martinez and Berbizier all captained France from the 9 position.

Kieran Bracken, and Matt Dawson are the only two that come to mind for England in the recent past.

Peel, Howley, John and Jones as well as that legend Gareth Edwards all ran out in front for Wales.

For the All Blacks, other than RWC winner David Kirk a few others have also worn the captain tag – Chris Laidlaw, David Loveridge and Justin Marshall come to mind.

That is a fair number of 9’s who wore the captain’s jersey, which just serves to illustrate what a bossy bunch the poison dwarves of rugby can be.

Turning to fly-halves as captains. Some say this is the ideal position for a captain as this position allows the incumbent a perfect view of what is happening in a game and the ability to dictate patterns, tactics, and the game in general.

The records show otherwise.

Let’s start by looking at the most successful rugby team in history, the All Blacks. The last time a flyhalf captained the All Blacks was back on the 12th of September 1936 when a man by the name of JL Griffiths was in charge of the team. During the next 79 years the New Zealanders have avoided giving the captaincy to a flyhalf! Not even in friendly games or mid-week touring games! Perhaps we should top and wonder why?

Michael Lynagh and Mark Ella captained Australia from the 10 slot, and they were both back in the 1980’s. There may have been more but my records for Australia do not go back into pre-history.

Obviously Hugo Porta of Argentina must be mentioned. A great player and an inspirational leader. Rob Andrew and Johnny Wilkinson both had two chances at being England captain, but were less than successful in that role. Prior to them you need to go back to 1963 and a fellow called Sharpe.

For Wales there were the two Davies and Phil Bennett back in the 70’s and 80’s and Stephen Jones more recently, but that is about it!

France is another team where you have to flip back through the pages of history to 1936 and a fellow named J Desclaux. No flyhalf since has captained Les Bleus.

Bennie Osler in 1931, followed by Craven in 1938, and then the disastrous experiment with Naas Botha from 1986 to 1992 are the only 10s to have captained South Africa.

Naas Botha as a “general and captain” had a 44% winning record, bettered only by Corne Krige’s 38.88% record. The two worst captains in South African rugby history, unless you include HH Carstens, RCD Snedden, and AR Richards back in 1891 when they each lead South Africa in one “test” and lost each time. There is some excuse for them, it was the first time South Africa played “test” rugby, and the captain was nominated from the host city where the game was played.

I think we can agree that fly-halves tend not to be good captains?

There have been captains in other positions on the field of play. South Africa currently has Jean de Villiers in the midfield. We had another center as captain in PK Albertyn, but that was in 1924.

Tim Horan, Jason Little, and Stirling Mortlock have done the job for Australia, while England did have Mike Tindall, Mike “Speed Bump” Catt, and Will Carling captaining from the midfield.

I am sure there are more backline players to have captained their teams, but the numbers are few and far between. The records seem to indicate that forwards provide for far more leaders and thus captains than do the prima donnas who play in the backline.

Are forwards more stable as characters? Are forwards better thinkers, despite rumours to the contrary? Or is it that forwards just have a more domineering attitude?

Perhaps it is interesting to take a look at the number of forwards who graduated to becoming successful coaches? They certainly seem to dominate the numbers here too!

How does one judge a great captain?

Obviously one cannot judge a captain purely on winning margins as some great captains have not played in great teams. Hugo Porta is the first to come to mind.

The much-maligned Corne Krige is another captain who should not be judged on his winning record. He had all the qualities one looks for in a captain. He captained every team he was ever involved in, from junior school through to his country. He had the misfortune to become Bok captain during an era of particularly poor team selections and a ludicrous merry-go-round of coaches.

He was first appointed captain under Nick Mallett and then suffered a serious injury that put him out of the ’99 RWC. When he returned Mallett had been fired and Harry Viljoen was “Chairman of the Board” running the team as an adjunct to his business empire.

When Harry hit the high-road, much like Sarah Palin he blamed the media for interfering in his already very high profile life, along came one of the true coaching disasters of modern times, Rudolf Straeuli.

Imagine the pressure of having to deal with Viljoen and then Straeuli and their personal little bugs and idiosyncracies. Kamp Staaldraad and all, I can fully forgive Corne Krige for his poor winning record!

Whether his emotive, and extremely aggressive, on-field response to captaining a weak Bok team should be forgiven is the subject for a different debate.

So, what then makes a good captain?

Let me sharpen the focus of this question somewhat. What makes a good international captain?

A good school, club, or provincial level captain will probably require a different set of skills and abilities to an international captain, so let’s focus this question purely on captaincy at an international level.

I guess there are a number of important criteria. These are my thoughts on the subject.

First and foremost, you need to be the best available in your particular position. Top level rugby requires the concerted efforts of the 15 best available players to make a team work. A team cannot afford to carry a passenger simply because he is good tactician or a good leader.

This criteria has caused many arguments and much unhappiness in years past. Right now Richie McCaw is unquestionably the captain of the All Blacks and the most successful international captain in history. But, and it is a big but, is he still the best flanker in New Zealand? There are some that suggest he is over the hill and heading down the slippery slope to the valley below. (If I may use every cliché I can think of!)

Based on his performances last year (2014) there is no doubt that he is still one of the best around, and the 2015 RWC will probably be his swansong.

We had similar questions asked of John Smit in 2011, his last year of international rugby when he was no longer everyone’s first choice as hooker. Was he really good enough to still wear the Bok number 2 and captain the side? Personally I did not think so, but others thought he was.

When Nick Mallett called time on Gary Teichmann’s career as captain and appointed Bobby Skinstad I believe he made a grave error. Bobby was an inspirational and exciting captain, of that there can be no doubt. As a loose forward he was one of the very best around, be it at flank or 8. BUT he certainly was not match fit and at his best when he was appointed. Based simply on that fact he was not the best available player in his position at that time. I believe he was pushed into the job too early, and when he was not physically fit enough for the game, and that killed his long term prospects as a captain. He could have been one of the greats!

Whether Gary Teichmann was the best No 8 in the country at that time is also questionable, but that is not the issue here. Bob Skinstad was not the best player in his position at the time, and Mallett erred in giving him the captaincy.

The second, critically important criteria for an international captain must be the charisma of the man both on and off the field. He must engender respect simply by being on the field or in the room. Richie McCaw has it. Jean de Villiers has it. John Smit had it, so did Sean Fitzpatrick.

Morne du Plessis rates as my best Bok captain ever, and he had that special aura around him. If Morne said “jump” everyone jumped, nobody asked why or looked around to see if others were going to jump, they simply jumped. I once watched him quiet an unruly crowd of drunks by just holding up a hand and waiting for them to go quiet before he spoke. “That’s enough boys, time to go home!” and they all left. Not the police, not the management of Old Greys Club in Bloemfontein, not the organizers of the reunion party, nobody could get them to be quiet, Morne could, and did.

There is something about great captains, call it charisma, call it an aura, call it a presence, it may be invisible to the naked eye, but it is there, and it is palpable.

Not everyone has it!

Think outside rugby, Mike Atherton was a singularly unlikeable captain of the England cricket team, nicknamed Captain Grumpy by the media. Needless to say England were not a terribly successful cricketing outfit at the time either.

Within rugby there have been captains singularly lacking in charisma. Right now I think Australia’s Michael Hooper fits the bill perfectly. He simply does not engender the kind of respect one wants to see in a captain at international level. Naas Botha was another example of a player and man who simply did not have the charisma or aura that a captain should have.

Think of Jean de Villiers’ diplomacy in his speech after defeating England at Twickenham last November, and contrast that to the mealy mouthed response by Chris Robshaw. Charismatic versus grumpy. It had nothing to do with winning or losing the game, it had everything to do with how you handle it. Think of Richie McCaw after losing their game to South Africa last year.

Let’s move on to another criteria I believe critical to a good international captain.

The captain must lead by example on the field. Let me repeat that: The captain must lead by example on the field of play.

I mentioned earlier that the captain must be the best player in his position in the team. That is not enough. He has to be an example to every other player in the team.

Whether it is with the guts, determination, blood and bones of a Corne Krige, or the diplomacy of a Jean de Villiers. Whether it is the authority of a Colin Meads, Bill McBride or a Richie McCaw, or the cool calmness under pressure of a John Smit, or a combination of all these things, it is the captain’s role to lead by example.

A captain cannot just wander around the field shouting orders and taking photographs rather than getting involved in the game itself. That is not captaincy, that is the coaches job!

The captain cannot get involved in off-the-ball incidents and ill disciplined behaviour. The captain cannot be the enforcer and the negotiator. He has to be in control of himself, and thus his team, all the time. Dylan Hartley may captain Northampton, but he could never be captain of England! He is off the field in the sin-bin more often than not and that is not what is wanted of a captain!

A final criteria that I think is critical to a great captain is loyalty. Loyalty to the cause, loyalty to the team, loyalty to the coach and management and, above all, loyalty to each individual in his team.

A captain must be the poster boy for the team – his loyalty to the cause should be unquestioned. The country and all supporters should see him as the embodiment of the team, and that will only come through his loyalty to the cause. John Smit had it in chunks!

Loyalty to his team and to his players are critical from a leadership perspective. Players need to believe that the captain believes in them, then they will follow him through the gates of hell itself.

Finally, loyalty to the coaching staff and management are equally critical. A captain who questions the skills and competency of the coaching staff or his team management is one short step away from destroying the entire team and the trust relationship that is critical within a team.

Michael Hooper did a remarkable job in not supporting Ewan MacKenzie last year, opting to support Kurtley Beale instead. It destroyed the man who had made him captain, it destroyed the management team and did an enormous amount of damage to Australian rugby to boot. He should have stayed aloof and not chosen sides. And I believe that he is and always will be a weak captain as a result. I would fire his ass as quickly as I can if my name was Michael Cheika….

This discourse on captaincy could go on for another couple of pages, but I think that is enough for today. At another time we can talk about how a captain should be chosen, and what his role should be within a team.

Now, if you are still awake after all that stuff I would suggest a stiff whiskey and some meditative music to get you to sleep!

Bill van Zyl – Circa June 2015