How important is the role of the captain?
With the Six Nations up and running all the chat has been about captaincy but how important is the role of the skipper and who will get the Lions job this summer?
Martin Johnson always reckoned that us lot in the media made too much of the role of a captain – he said he had a team of leaders around him anyway when England were in their pomp – but we still can’t stop talking about it.
Cricket captaincy is in the news as well with Alastair Cook giving up the England job but in cricket the top job is a lot different to the one in rugby. Johnson always gave the impression that all he did was to do the toss, lead the team out, talk to the ref and do a bit of press. There has to be more to it than that.
Alf Ramsey, as we have noted before, said football managers got too much credit for wins and took much flak for defeats – maybe the same can be said of rugby skippers. Just ask Chris Robshaw.
A quick look at the World Cup winning captains in rugby – David Kirk, Nick Farr-Jones, Francois Pienaar, John Eales, Johnson, John Smit and Richie McCaw – shows them to be pretty special men but most importantly they were pretty special players. Whoever captains the Lions in New Zealand this summer had better be a pretty special player as well.
We are always told the most important thing for a captain is to be sure of his place in the side but that does not always apply as recent events may have shown.
Dylan Hartley, England’s leader, has been under the microscope because he was banned and out of the game for eight weeks before their opening Six Nations match against France and some thought any amount of leadership skills could not make up for lack of match hardness.
Eddie Jones disagrees. He claimed that England have so few leaders – there are not many Dallaglios, Dawsons, Greenwoods and Wilkinsons in the current lot says Jones – so he has to have his skipper on board 24/7. Jamie George, the form English hooker of the last few months, probably shakes his head at that one but it is just tough.
King Eddie also says that most people don’t see most of what a captain does. He told us recently that one player had to be pulled into line for turning up late for something and Hartley was the man who did it.
“Young people do not like doing that,” said. “It is a skill we have to teach players and a process. It has to be dealt with.
“The reality of elite sport now is that players come through academies and are told what to do every day. You have to find ways of overcoming it otherwise you end up with teams that cannot make decisions. They need to stand on their own two feet.” So there really is more to it than tossing a coin, talking at a microphone and communicating with the referee.
Talk to anyone at Northampton about Hartley’s stint there as club captain and they will tell you stories about he organised barbecues for academy players at his house to make them feel welcome. More to it than tossing a coin then and Hartley is obviously a good captain but he might not even make the plane for the Lions.
Alun Wyn Jones, who recently took over the Wales job from Sam Warburton, is another bloke who claimed the captaincy would not change him and he had a good group of senior players to help him out.
The second row is one of the first names on the Welsh team-sheet and he has been as good as his word. He put his normal shift in in Wales’ first game against Italy as if the captaincy was no great burden at all and he is a front runner to lead the Lions. He will make the squad, he has done it before, in the last Test in 2013, and would be respected by all the squad. Three massive ticks.
And it is not the burden it was back in the day when players did not get paid. Then the skipper was virtually the coach, he took training in the 1960s, sometimes as an act of subterfuge because amateurs were not supposed to meet up too early in the week, and was everything from spokesman to chief bottler washer.
Nowadays the captain has all manner of people to support him. He is the link from the squad to what is normally a massive coaching team – Eddie Jones has a back room staff of more than 20 – so a lot of what the captain used to do back in the day is taken care of. The modern captain has just one job to do – and that is to lead and that is not just for 80 minutes at the weekend.
Ireland skipper Rory Best has been touted as potential Lions captain, and he has a win over the All Blacks on his CV, but is anyone coming up the rails apart from the three favourites?
It does not take a massive leap of faith to see Warburton being asked to do the job again and he is in single figure odds with the bookmakers but what about Owen Farrell? He has done the job for Saracens, is an England vice-captain, will be captain sooner or later and is nailed on for a Test berth.
But most of the money is on Alun Wyn.
He seems to have got all the credentials for being a good captain. Whatever they really are.