Will the Waratahs finally win a Super Rugby title in 2013?

Bruce Rankin Roar Rookie

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Waratahs player Berrick Barnes braces as he hits the line. (AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy)

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The Super Rugby championship is set to start in a few weeks and, as ever, the key question remains: will the perennial underachievers, the Waratahs, finally win a Super Rugby title in 2013 after 17 seasons of failure?

We have yet another new coach in Michael Cheika, who appears to be heading in the right direction.

However, as Steve Jancetic noted in his Roar article on Monday, Cheika has yet to make the key decision: the selection of his Captain.

Cheika said of the captaincy that: “Until the other lads had come back and started running, you’ve got to see who wants it the most.” and …..”The leadership’s earned, it’s not a given.” [emphasis mine]

In my view, while the latter point is valid, the former is an inappropriate and seriously inadequate basis for selection of a role as critical as the Captaincy.

Over five years ago in November 2007, just after RWC 2007 I wrote a series of four articles for the Roar entitled “The Art of Captaincy”.

In Part 3 on Australian captains and in particular the Waratahs captaincy, I observed:

“I have attended every Super 12 and Super 14 game at the SFS since 1996. Looking back I’ve come to the conclusion that the principal reason for the Waratahs failure to win a Super championship is because they have not had a top line captain with those key captaincy skills like John Eales, Brett Robinson, Blackadder, and so on.

“They’ve had many fine players as captain – Tim Gavin, Michael Brial, Matt Burke, Jason Little, Whittaker, Freier, Waugh and others – but none who would be highly rated as captains. I think it was early on in 1996-97 former Springbok captain Tiaan Strauss played for the Waratahs but was not apparently considered for the captaincy.

“The Waratahs results may have been markedly different with his experience at the helm. Sure there are many other factors associated with the Waratahs poor Super track record, but the lack of an outstanding Waratahs captain and leader over the past 12 years appears as the one consistent factor in the failure to win a Super title.”

Five years later, here we are in 2013 and nothing has changed with the Waratahs, except it is now 17 seasons of failure versus 12!

Ewen McKenzie showed he had the goods as coach by taking the Waratahs to two finals in 2005 and 2008 – but still no title.

In the past five seasons, the captains were Whittaker, Waugh, and in 2012, variously by Mumm, Halangahu, Elsom and Robinson – none of whom demonstrated clearly distinguished captaincy skills or attributes.

Waugh as captain showed he had no tactical nous whatsoever in the 2011 game at the SFS, when he wasted some 15 minutes with about a dozen scrums, vainly attempting to score a pushover try. The most brain dead performance as a captain that I’ve seen in over 50 years of playing and watching rugby.

To come back to Michael Cheika, what are the attributes he should be seeking in his captain?

In that same 2007 Roar article the following criteria for choosing captains were posed:

CHOOSING CAPTAINS – THE KEY ATTRIBUTES OF CAPTAINCY
Coaches should give the following points careful thought:
1. The person selected for this position need not be a brilliant or popular player, but, rather, one who can lead and give confidence and inspire his team mates.

2. He must be able during the course of a match to make decisions to change the type of play and to change tactics according to circumstances.

3. He should be able to rally his team when the pressure is on and consolidate the position.

4. He must not allow his team to panic.

5. He should be able to sum up a position rapidly, being able in close play to open it up again, vary the attack, and reorganise cover defence.

6. Once a team goes on the field the captain is in complete control. A coach cannot go on the field during a game – neither can the captain hold up his hand and say, “Please, Sir, what do I do next?”

7. A coach can teach general tactics and advise on the policy of a side – but the captain has absolute control once a game begins. Everything is up to him. There is no remote control radio to direct him – nor should there be.

8. It is just as much a coach’s responsibility to train players to think for themselves as it is for him to school a captain to assume his responsibilities and lead his side.

9. The Captaincy is indeed a position in itself and the captain should be picked first when the team is selected. Why? First, as coach, you decide what type of rugby you want to play; second you pick as your captain the one who is best capable of executing the strategies and tactics for that type of play (and obviously agrees with the style of play!); third you pick the team members with the skills and experience suited to that type of play.” By default captain and coach work hand in glove together.

10. The captain must be an 80 minute player. The last 20 minutes of a game are when tight games are won or lost – when it is vital that the captain’s skills, experience and tactical nous are present to rally the side and to make tactical changes that will win the game. There are many legendary examples of great captains leading their teams to come from behind and win in the last few minutes.

11. The playing position of the captain is indeed crucial and should be from 1 to 9. In my view the ideal positions are half back, No 8 and side row forwards as they have the best perspective as play develops, compared to those in the tight five or engine room. They have more visibility from the side/back of the scrum and lineout, while the half back has most visibility of all. However, there are many outstanding captains from the tight five: Eales, Fitzpatrick, Smit, Johnson. In contrast the fly half or first 5/8th is the chief play maker and, in my view, should not be appointed as captain. He has to read the play, initiate set moves (talking to the captain, halfback and inside centre etc), have the vision to make instantaneous decisions and is often the principal goal kicker. These are more than enough responsibilities to shoulder, without the added burden of captaincy and all the off-field roles of press conferences, interviews and various speeches etc. Successful captains from inside centre outwards are rare exceptions. They are too far away from the seat of the action, thus limited in their ability to determine tactical changes and communicate decisions. Proximity to the referee is valuable but I feel a relatively minor consideration compared to the others.

12. “Shared leadership” is considered an important factor in corporate management today and I feel is equally applicable on the rugby field. It’s not only the captain, but also the importance of the “senior players” and the role they jointly play, to keep exchanging vital information and suggestions with the captain, so that he may make the necessary changes to play and tactics.

13. Now that the use of remote control radio is a reality (see point 7 above!) its use by the coach via water carriers, doctor etc to control or make changes to on field play and tactics should be kept to an absolute minimum. Otherwise the captain’s control and on field leadership could be undermined and detrimental to his confidence. Unless they have been clearly discussed and agreed beforehand, the coach’s ability to make tactical substitutions during the game can also be unsettling to a captain – and the team.

Of all the foregoing, the most critical ability of the captain is Point 2 to be able to change tactics and play many times during a game without reference to the coach. No coaching is of much use without a captain able to change tactics on the field, especially in the last 20 minutes of a game, where the captain’s skill and experience, in conjunction with his senior leaders, is vital to win tight games.

The example of the Brumbies in 2012 is illustrative.

New coach Jake White, arrived from South Africa without much first hand knowledge of the squad of Brumbies, albeit I believe was involved in its selection. He surprised nearly everyone, by selecting Ben Mowen as captain, instead of the experienced hooker Stephen Moore.

Mowen showed he had what it takes as his leadership skills proved vital in guiding one of the most inexperienced Brumbies sides ever assembled through the 2012 season, to just miss out on the finals.

It was a masterstroke by Jake White. My guess is he will prefer Mowen to Pocock as captain in 2013.

So to Cheika and the Waratahs in 2013 – who will he choose as captain?

In Steve Jancetic’s Roar article, “PeterK” gave a very good summary of the various candidates.

My concern is that the new squad contains a dearth of genuine senior leaders.

Leading candidates in the forwards are:
• Robinson – has not shown genuine leadership skills, however could be alternate captain
• Polota-Nau – is basically only a 60 minute player, who is frequently injured. No. (Point 10)
• Palu – has the experience at the end of a long career, however too injury prone
• Hooper – a young gun at only 21 – he could be the bolter

Leading candidates in the backs:
• McKibbin – in an ideal spot as experienced halfback, however am not familiar with his leadership skills
• Barnes – vastly experienced, a senior leader, has a cool head and a good tactical brain
• Ashley-Cooper – experienced but ruled out by Point 11
• Mitchell – experienced but ruled out by Point 11

My vote is for Cheika to do a Jake White and select Michael Hooper as captain.

As new coach and captain they are ideally placed to work hand in glove together in moulding a new team for the future.

I would also vote for Berrick Barnes as vice-captain, for the reasons mentioned.

In summary, can the Waratahs win a Super Rugby title in 2013?

Yes.

Will the Waratahs win a Super Rugby title in 2013?

In my view – no – the critical on field captaincy and leadership skills are not apparent at this stage.

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