29 September 2015

Jean de Villiers has quit the Springbok Rugby World Cup squad after breaking his jaw in the game against Samoa. He has also announced his immediate retirement from international rugby. It is a sad end to an illustrious career and he will be fondly remembered as a fine player, and exemplary sportsman and gentleman, and a very good captain and a rugby diplomat.

He is fortunate that the end comes after the game against Samoa, allowing him to ride off into the sunset on the back of a very good personal performance and a victory for his team. One week earlier and it would have been an ignominious disappearance off the world stage rather than the nostalgic and sad farewells to a great man.

Perhaps 2015 was always going to be a bridge too far for Jean de Villiers. Perhaps he would have been better advised to retire a year ago when that horrible knee injury curtailed his season and gave him a mountain to climb to be ready for 2015. Perhaps it would have been better for the Springboks to have a chance to settle under a new captain. Who knows?

One thing we do know is that the squad faces a new challenge of finding a captain who can take over the reigns and guide his team to the end of their RWC campaign. The question must be asked: Who will it be?

A number of candidates put up their hands.

Victor Matfield, the Vice-Captain is the obvious candidate. There is Duane Vermeulen who has shown his leadership abilities with the Stormers and Western Province. Schalk Burger is another with experience in the captain’s roll. Adriaan Strauss proved himself a very capable captain at the Cheetahs, Francois Louw captains Bath, and then there are the outsiders Fourie du Preez and Bismarck du Plessis

So who will it be?

A while ago I wrote about the attributes of a great captain.

I suggested the following attributes or criteria for a captain:

First , you need to be the best available in your particular position.

Second, a critically important criteria for an international captain must be the charisma of the man both on and off the field.

Third, a captain must lead by example on the field.

Fourth. 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.

Let’s examine each of the candidates for Springbok captaincy in terms of each of those criteria.

Firstly, the best player in his position.

Is Victor Matfield the best lock forward in the Springbok squad? He certainly used to be the best, but I am not sure that he is still the best, or even second best, or third… There are three younger lock forwards in the squad who have consistently outperformed him in most aspects of the game in recent times. Another real question is: How durable is Victor at 38? Can he see out the game, or will he be available for all the games that lie ahead?

Duane Vermeulen is undoubtedly the best Number 8 in the squad, and in South Africa. The fact is that he is the only specialist Number 8 in the squad, so he has no competition in this regard. We have to ask a question about his durability and whether he can see out the campaign.

Schalk Burger is certainly one of the very best blind-side flankers in world rugby. His performances this year have made him an automatic first choice for the Boks despite his 33 years.

Adriaan Strauss and Bismarck du Plessis swap places as the best hooker in the squad on a weekly basis, sometimes in the middle of a game. Either could be the best available at any one moment.

Francoise Louw is our only specialist open-sider and thus easily the best in his position in the squad.

Fourie du Preez is another that wins the contest of “best of breed” based simply on the paucity of the competition. Amongst the three scrumhalves ion the squad he is head and shoulders ahead of Ruan Pienaar at the moment, and Rudy Paige has yet to play a single minute of Springbok rugby.

Let’s measure our candidates in terms of the next criterion: Charisma both on and off the field. We need someone who can replace the easy confidence that Jean de Villiers had in front of the microphone at pre- and post-match interviews. The diplomacy and tact he showed at all times on and off the field, as well as the ability to communicate and relate to the referee in a game.

Who amongst our candidates has the necessary charisma? Does Victor Matfield come across as a charismatic, well-spoken and comfortable public speaker? Does he have the diplomacy of a Jean de Villiers to handle an issue such as the All Black team sheet mess a year ago? Does he build a relationship with the referee? Or does he come across as a slightly angry somewhat taciturn individual?

What about Duane Vermeulen? Or Schalk Burger? Or any of the others?

The one who seems to stand head and shoulders above the rest is Schalk Burger. He is a smiling, friendly individual who is everyone’s friend. Perhaps he is too friendly?

Moving on to the third criterion, leading by example.

I guess the stand-out performers in this area would be Schalk Burger and Duane Vermeulen. Both will put their body and life on the line, all day, every day.

Another who will give everything he has is Adriaan Strauss. Bismarck du Plessis is a short head behind him only because of his penchant for getting distracted by disciplinary issues.

Victor Matfield has copped some very deserved criticism for avoiding the hard grinding work usually expected of a lock forward, opting for a role as an extra midfielder when his bulk is really needed in the hard stuff.

Fourie du Preez cannot really be measured against this criterion as he has not been around for some time.

Finally we look at the loyalty issue.

A number of our candidates have some question marks here! Duane Vermeulen opted to sign a contract in France without even bothering to tell his Stormers team management that he would be out of the country for a while. Fourie du Preez has chosen to ply his trade in Japan. Victor Matfield has retired and come back, played in France and come back. We are told that he is off to play a bit of club rugby in England when the RWC is over. Bismarck is off to Montpellier at the end of the RWC. Schalk Burger is looking at playing more rugby in Japan. Flo Louw plies his trade in England.

Only Adriaan Strauss plays and lives in South Africa, but he does not even captain his franchise team.

We need to dig a little deeper then. Who has been loyal to the cause without exception, despite even their decision to play abroad? I guess Victor Matfield’s loyalty is to his coach, and to himself – I cannot help but think that his comeback to rugby was made at the behest of his great friend Heyneke Meyer, with a promise of another World Cup campaign as the bait. This was not loyalty to the cause, but a self-interested decision. He would also be a very short-term option as there is no chance of his leading the Boks in future campaigns.

Sadly, Duane’s selfish decision to head for France while his team was still involved in Super 15 games, without telling his employers where he was going, makes a big black mark against his name on the selection sheet. He will also not be based locally and an absentee captain is probably a poor idea.

Fourie du Preez seems to be of similar cut. He only pops back to South Africa from time to time, when his coach calls. He avoids playing rugby locally as much as is possible without actually announcing his retirement from South African rugby.

In fact, of the real candidates for the captain’s role only Schalk Burger has been supremely loyal to the cause, to his team, to his mates, and to his country through all the tough times. He might be on his way to Japan now, but his fight with injury and life threatening disease and his comeback to top class rugby is evidence of his loyalty to the game.

Adding in some other issues that need consideration, the choice of a captain becomes even more difficult.

Durability – a number of our candidates are on the fringe of an old age pension and questions must be asked whether they can see out the entire World Cup campaign.

Discipline – one or two of our candidates are frequent penalty providers and yellow card candidates. Can we afford a captain who might not be on the field for the whole game?

If we consider all the criteria I have mentioned, we end up with just two possible candidates for the captain’s arm band. Schalk Burger and Adriaan Strauss.

I know who I would choose!