Mark Ella knew exactly how Rocky Elsom felt yesterday. Gutted. In a shock move, Wallaby coach Robbie Deans stripped Elsom of the World Cup captaincy, and handed it to Super Rugby-winning Queensland Reds skipper James Horwill.
That decision came from left field.
In 1984, the then Wallaby coach Alan Jones relieved Ella of his captaincy, and installed Queenslander Andy Slack.
That decision came from left field, as well.
As tough as it may appear, both were right on the money.
Mercurial Mark, still the most instinctive and intuitive footballer I’ve ever seen in any code, blossomed without the captaincy.
He scored a try in every international as the Wallabies chalked up their one and only Grand Slam tour of England (19-3), Ireland (16-9), Scotland (37-12), and Wales (28-9).
Nobody in the history of rugby has achieved such a personal feat. Not even an All Black, and they’ve won four Grand Slams, in 1978, 2005, 2008, and 2010, nor in the Springboks’ four Slams of 1912-13, 1931-32, 1951-52, and 1960-61.
Who’s to say the Rock won’t blossom as well without having to worry about 14 team-mates?
While Ella’s position was never under threat, Elsom has Scott Higginbotham breathing down his neck.
That’s one of the major reasons why Horwill now has the reins, avoiding the possibility of dropping captain Elsom during the World Cup.
The big bloke has a lot left to give, and it will be a huge bonus for the Wallabies’ Cup campaign if Elsom throws all of his 197cm-110kg frame into the fray.
There were two other occasions when captaincy changes grabbed the headlines.
In 1978, innovative Wallaby coach Daryl Haberecht, the man behind the extraordinary “up the jumper” try for NSW Country against Sydney at Millner, dropped a bombshell by replacing Mark Loane as captain with Tony Shaw – both Queenslanders.
Like Ella is his day, Loane was the best rugby player on the planet at the time. But Shaw turned out to be the better skipper.
Nonetheless, it was a big call by Haberecht. He always followed his hunches, and was rarely wrong.
And back in the 60s, the Wallaby captaincy switched between crack half-back Ken Catchpole and prop John Thornett.
Catchpole captained the Wallabies in his first Test in 1961, and was coach as well. He led the side for six Tests, before hooker Peter Johnson and full-back Jim Lenehan skippered a Test apiece, with Catchpole still in the side.
Thornett was also in the lineup throughout, taking over the captaincy for 15 Tests. Catchpole was reinstated for four and Thornett for one.
The revolving door captaincy and amateur administration between 1961 and 1967 was a shambles compared to today’s standards of professional organisations.
In that same era, the Wallaby coach was a second-class citizen, called an assistant manager. The manager was the king-pin, his assistant just a necessary evil to make up the numbers.
It was the manager who spoke at every official function. The coach was always at the back of the room, and hard to find.
Not so these days.
It’s the coach who is up-front and very visible; it’s the manager’s turn to be invisible.
Deans was very visible yesterday, having made a captaincy decision that could well be the difference between a so-so performance tournament and holding aloft the Holy Grail.
It took courage to admit he was wrong supporting Rocky Elsom from the start of this season, when the skipper was so short of match time because of injury.
It was better to cut the mustard, before it was too late.
And despite all the flak the coach is copping from former players and current commentators bemoaning Matt Giteau’s non-selection, the knockers are missing the point.
They are remembering Giteau the way he was, and not the way he is, remembering him as a team man, and not a jack man. Deans has decided Giteau is a disruptive liability who could cost the World Cup.
And again, Robbie Deans is right on the money.
It was his finest off-field hour.