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How does one root like a captain?

Garth Hamilton Roar Guru

22 Have your say

    Rocky ElsomWhen this question was put to me by Roarer OldManEmu in response to an earlier article, I knew at once that I had seen my Everest. Look upon this question ye gods and fear, for what more knowledge is there worth knowing, what better forbidden fruit is there worth falling for?

    Answer this, Garthy Boy, and you’ll be stepping beyond your usual struggles to understand the wills and wants of mere rugby gods.

    To know the answer to this question would be to know the mind of God.

    Proper God too, and not just the one those home schooled kids down the road used to deliver pamphlets about but every god worth his salt.

    Resolving this question would need the collective resources of Thor, Pan, Osiris, Eru Iluvatar for the Tolkien nuts – all of them.

    I’d even like to get one of those Hindu Kama Sutra deities in on this too if only to help flush out some of the, ahh, shall we say … ins and outs.

    Now I’m guessing I’m going to have a hard time getting this headline through the good and all-knowing editors here on The Roar but, guys, trust me. I’ve been here since day one and I know what I’m doing.

    Besides, can you imagine the interest and flow-on traffic if I pull this off?

    “Sports website discovers the meaning of life” the headlines will scream.

    I can even see the Women’s Weekly take on it now (“Ten ways to get your man to wear the armband in bed”) or the Mens’ Health version (“Root your way to success.”)

    Think big fellas. You readers too, I need you on my side. Bum taps and follow me.

    You see captaincy or leadership is one of those things that buzz around in my head more than it should. We are something of a leadership generation where everyone is a manager and leadership can be acquired in piecemeal correspondence courses.

    In my world of project management you’d think there would be a surplus of people just gagging to make some forthright decision or other but the truth is quite the opposite.

    On the sporting fields things have changed, too.

    Where rugby once banned coaches, effectively leaving the selected team in the hands of the captain, we’ve since seen a mass swelling in the coaching ranks that peaked, along with Sir Clive Woodward’s ego, on the failed Lion’s tour of New Zealand in 2005.

    In parallel to this growth in off-field management has been the boom of player power. The Wallabies now have ‘on-field leaders’ beyond the captain whereas teams of yesteryear just had ‘players’. Players who were expected to make decisions. Sometimes on their own.

    Imagine, if you will, Alan Jones inviting Stan Pilecki to become part of his 1984 team’s on-field leadership group.

    AJ: Stan, I would like you to be a member of the on-field leadership group.

    SP: (silence, only just broken by the crumpling of an empty durry packet)

    AJ: Stan, I …

    SP: (Interrupting) I heard you. Piss off.

    AJ: Right on.

    It would be easy to deride player power given the concept’s standard bearers’, the Brumbies, had such a recent nose-dive to the depths of the Super Rugby table, but such claims could be well countered by the performance of England’s 2007 World Cup team.

    The later collectively shook off the tyranny of poor coaching and got themselves into a final they had no chance of making otherwise.

    Their inspirational rise still shits me to this day.

    Yet it is a truth, universally acknowledged, that every world cup winning team has had at its helm a brilliant leader.

    And look at them – Kirk, Farr-Jones, Pienaar, Eales, Johnson and Smit – legends to a man. However, a less giddy assessment would rate their leadership abilities pretty much the same had they not been lucky enough to raise the William Webb Ellis trophy.

    Beyond this rarefied few there are others of recent years who have tossed a coin or two with distinction.

    Tana Umaga, Richie McCaw, Ryan Jones, Paul O’Connell and Sergio Parisse stand out. What makes these men great leaders?

    Some men can’t play but can lead and this in itself presents a problem. George Gregan and Steve Borthwick were arguably retained beyond their useful time often on the basis of the leadership that they brought to the squad.

    Both decisions probably hurt their respective teams although Borthwick’s removal came much, much quicker than Gregan’s.

    But when it comes time to remove a captain how do you go about it? Do you make like the French revolution and just let all of the pretenders bicker and fight among each other until a new Napoleon marches forward?

    Or do you make the coup de gras and the new king’s anointment in the same movement and then protect the chosen one like some US-backed third world despot?

    Perhaps, as the world cup now dominates the rugby world, too much is made of retaining the captaincy. I’m not advocating that it be passed around like a soggy doobie at a John Buttler Trio concert. It is obviously a responsibility of some weight unto which (again like the doobie) there is no standard response.

    Captains come in all shapes and sizes and between two of my personal favourites, Alan Border and Wally Lewis, there is a wide stretch. To illustrate the point, who would you rather be captained by; Sir Frank Worrell, Mark Loane or Douglas Jardine?

    There is of course no right or wrong answer, only a demonstration of the differing needs of each individual for appropriate leadership.

    For mine, I want the sort of captain described by fellow Roarer, Grimmace: “a bloke who makes me want to put a hard shot on the fridge when I go for a beer during the game”. Isn’t that a great line?

    To me, the great variability in styles of captaincy supports my contention that the importance of a player retaining the captaincy is often exaggerated.

    As much as Border was the captain for his time and Lewis for his, perhaps under different circumstances Rocky Elsom would make a great Australian captain.

    Without the burden of turning promise into trophies, perhaps he would look less wet cur and more something like a racehorse undersized. But let us not flog dead horses and call into question Elsom’s captaincy again. I fear we’ll have the whole World Cup to do that.

    Let’s remove the specifics and ask why is it so hard to remove a captain and should it be such a big deal? Does captaincy even matter?

    I fear I am but yet kicking pebbles on the path to my base camp so let me direct your response towards the titular question and rephrase the question thus – could one captain ‘dismount’ and his replacement take over without skipping a beat, or would too much of the rhythm be lost?

    OldManEmu, I promise I’ll get to the bottom of this.

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    The Crowd Says (22)

    • August 16th 2011 @ 7:25am
      Who Needs Melon said | August 16th 2011 @ 7:25am | ! Report

      Cracker article Garth. Thank you! 🙂

      • August 16th 2011 @ 7:44am
        Moaman said | August 16th 2011 @ 7:44am | ! Report

        I agree! Conjured up all sorts of images 😉

    • August 16th 2011 @ 8:00am
      kingplaymaker said | August 16th 2011 @ 8:00am | ! Report

      Firstly I rarely disagree that strongly with points in these articles but:

      ‘The later collectively shook off the tyranny of poor coaching and got themselves into a final they had no chance of making otherwise.’

      This is only true in a flat world where Elvis reads the Hitler diaries to a background of flying pigs. The myth was created by embittered has-beens such as Lawrence Dallaglio unhappy about being left on the bench (when he was nowhere near good enough anymore to be in the squad at all), and desperate to re-write the history of their own failings. England only got to the final because excellent coaching and subtle motivation took a largely terrible group of players and made them something they should never been on the basis of talent.

      As for the general point of how much does a captain a matter, I agree probably less than is generally thought. So long as their are two or three strong older players with some delegated responsibility, maybe it can be changed easily. On the other hand in terms of controlling the group, a coach having his man working within the team, controlling and managing what he cannot, may in fact be a significant advantage and role for the captain.

      One thing is clear I think: if you’re going to replace a captain (or fire a senior but respected player within the team, impose heavy but controversial discipline etc..), try wherever possible to take the plunge before the year of a world cup. Then you have far more time to instill your own character and order in the team, whatever your choice of captain is like.

      Too late for De Villiers to jettison Smit then. I read an article somewhere defending him and saying that although a terrible player he was the glue holding everything together. Holding what together?

      • August 16th 2011 @ 10:33am
        sheek said | August 16th 2011 @ 10:33am | ! Report


        I would argue the only reason England got to the final of the 2007 world cup, had nothing to do with the coaching, & not much else to do with the players & captain.

        Australia (quarters), then France (semis), managed to play even more woefully than England did. If we hadn’t witnessed it with our own eyes, we wouldn’t have believed it possible…..!

        • August 16th 2011 @ 10:51am
          kingplaymaker said | August 16th 2011 @ 10:51am | ! Report

          Sheek here’s a relevant point I just made elsewhere:

          ‘Riccardo the problem about the world cup is that some of the results seem, well, random. Ideally a world cup brings the best play out of teams, but often world cup results are ludicrous and bizarre and one can very often not say ‘the best team won’.

          • August 16th 2011 @ 10:44pm
            Patrick said | August 16th 2011 @ 10:44pm | ! Report

            Yes, and No. I think World Cup results in terms of individual results are often random and bizarre, but on the whole, I think the best overall has won the WC more than they have lost it, they just dont often have to play the next best teams.

            Instances where arguably the best team won the WC, 1987 All Blacks, 1991 Australia, 1999 Australia and 2003 England. That is a good reflection that the best team should win.

            Someone elsewhere made the point that the last 3 WCs the winner has not had to play the ABs. This is not the fault of the winner, and in the case of 99 and 03, the teams that won would have been more likely to win imo

    • August 16th 2011 @ 8:11am
      Seiran said | August 16th 2011 @ 8:11am | ! Report

      In regards to dropping a captian. I’m surprised no one has brought up what happened to South Africa back in 1999 when Nick Mallett dropped his captain right before the world cup.

      Gary Teichmann had been captain of the Boks since 1996 and IMO was one of the best captains the Boks ever had. He was captain when the Boks were at their best but, in the lead up to the world cup, Mallett decided that Teichmann was out of form and took the unprecedented decision to drop the captain from the team.

      This move infuriated many South African supporters. I was living in SA at the time and I remember my friends from up in Natal being utterly disgusted with Mallett for dropping one of their own; one of them even borrowed one of my jerseys and supported the Aussies during the cup, he was so upset with the move.

      The Boks themselves were effected by the decision and their form during the WC was clearly not up the quality that they had been playing in the previous 4 years.

      Nick Mallett himself has since admitted that with the benefit of hindsight, the dropping of Teichmann was a big mistake.

    • August 16th 2011 @ 8:19am
      kingplaymaker said | August 16th 2011 @ 8:19am | ! Report

      Seiran so what to do with the Smit problem then?

      • August 16th 2011 @ 8:39am
        Seiran said | August 16th 2011 @ 8:39am | ! Report

        I was going to touch on that above but decided to leave it out. Smit will not be going anywhere before the WC. The reason I’ve given will be one deciding factors in that decision by SARU.

        Smit is a Natal boy, and I don’t think many Saffas from up that way will be happy to see another of their captains dropped in the way Teichmann was.

        This is not to say he shouldn’t. If I was the coach I would have made the move a year ago and given the team time to bed in a new captain. I think there is a lot more to the reason he is still in the team. The old boys in the Boks have been together for a long time now and I think these players have a lot more power in the ‘behind the scenes’ than we know about. I think the old boys have decided to stand behind their captain and this is the reason he is still there.

        The truth of the matter is, Smit is now too slow, too over weight and too outclassed by both the opposition and his replacement Hooker.

        But it’s too late to drop him now.

        The same with Elsom. Some people are calling for his head but the point is he should not have been made captain this year. They could have given the nod to Pocock or Genia and let Elsom just be the player he is. I think it would have been okay to the players and to Elsom himself, but again, it’s too late now.

        Personally, I don’t see a problem with replacing a captain during a match. Some people think the captain needs to be on the field for the whole 80 minutes, but if a team has some excellent generals waiting in the wings and they understand the game plan, this shouldn’t be a problem.

        I can see Elsom coming off after 50 minutes, when he’s running out of puff, and being replced by impact players such as Samo or Higginbothom to close the game out. I can see Smit coming off the field rather than moving to prop and allowing other players such as Ralepelle to replace him as hooker and Steenkamp take the prop role, thus giving Matfield the captains band for the remainder of the test.

        • August 16th 2011 @ 10:44am
          sheek said | August 16th 2011 @ 10:44am | ! Report


          I asked a Saffie acquaintance why Smit was being persevered with, when there appeared excellent alternatives at both hooker & captain.

          Bismarck du Plessis is the brilliant back-up hooker, who is already a better player now than the aging Smit. And I suggested Matfield seemed a good alternate choice as captain.

          My Saffie mate shot down the suggestion of Matfield, arguing he was not a good captain. My Saffie mate is a cape man, which may or may not have influenced his thoughts.

          Surprise, surprise, he suggested either jean de Villiers or Schalk Burger. Personally, if anyone is going to replce Smit, I would then go with de Villiers. He is a hard, but fair player. He always gives 100%, & he’s without ego in the sense he doesn’t covet the captaincy for its own ends.

          But as with Elsom for the Aussies, I reckon it’s too late now to dump Smit, without unbalancing the delicate team harmony framework that exists inside so many teams.

          Ironically, even if deep down many of the Boks players themselves thought Smit was past his use-by date, it appears they still have enormous respect for him as a person.

          • August 16th 2011 @ 11:33am
            kingplaymaker said | August 16th 2011 @ 11:33am | ! Report

            Perhaps they could keep Smit on the bench for the knockout games and only bring him on when they are certain of victory. I don’t think they will be certain of victory often in the knockout matches, however.

            What a squandering of a good generation of players this South African campaign is, as of iscourse the French, and worst of the all the terrible English under the mentally deficient Martin Johnson.

            • Roar Pro

              August 16th 2011 @ 12:28pm
              Grimmace said | August 16th 2011 @ 12:28pm | ! Report

              On bit of a side note, I think its bit of a shame that Smit has carried on until now. He runs the risk of being rmembered for all the wrong reasons, not that he was a great hooker and Springbok Captain. A lot like a certain former Wallaby halfback.

            • August 17th 2011 @ 9:15am
              ChrisT said | August 17th 2011 @ 9:15am | ! Report

              Smit is losing all my respect the longer this goes on. He has to know he is keeping better players out of the starting 15. Personally, I’d have a really hard time getting behind such a selfish captain.

              Btw kingplay. Apparently Martin Johnson speaks really highly of you. That he can do this at all is pretty amazing given the number of brain cells you attribute to him.

          • August 16th 2011 @ 7:09pm
            Warren said | August 16th 2011 @ 7:09pm | ! Report

            Sheek, how about the proposition that Smit is a better coach than Du Plessis?

            They sure as hell aren’t getting it anywhere else…

            Highly enjoyable article Garth!

          • August 17th 2011 @ 6:32am
            Lee said | August 17th 2011 @ 6:32am | ! Report

            I’m not a big fan of Matfield as a captain (I am a Sharks fan), but then again I would rather Smit being on the bench at most.

            My choice for captain would be Juan Smith but he spends so much time injured these days it couldn’t work. So failing that, Burger. But then you would have to drop Brussow…

    • August 16th 2011 @ 10:40am
      Crazy Horse said | August 16th 2011 @ 10:40am | ! Report

      And here is me thinking I was going to learn something that might be useful apre game on tour 🙂

    • August 16th 2011 @ 10:57am
      sheek said | August 16th 2011 @ 10:57am | ! Report


      It’s perhaps easier to say what I DON’T like about leaders/managers, etc, than what I DO like.

      I sometimes tell my manager, much to his chagrin, that if all the managers disappeared due to a sudden, fatal illness, the workplace would most likely function much more smoothly.

      This is because most workplaces, mine anyway, seems to work on the premise of ‘management systems’, thus allowing the managers to demonstrate they’re doing their job & to continue on their sumptuous pay packets.

      Nor do I have time for managers/leaders who covet the position for its own sake, & for their egos.

      For me, a true leader can be one of the boys. When it’s “time to lead”, no-one will have any trouble with his decisions because of the huge respect he is held in for his character & integrity as a human being.

      A true leader is also without ego, in the sense that “it’s all about me”. A true leader genuinely cares for his fellow workers, & acts as a mentor to the younger guys, while being unfazed about seeking the thoughts of his experienced workmates.

      I’m not sure where Rocky Elsom falls in all this. He doesn’t strike me as the guy a team mate could come to for a heart-to-heart, & be sure of receiving a genuinely sympathetic ear. He’s the leader of the Wallabies, but I don’t detect any great warmth from his team mates.

      The best two candidates in my view, for Wallabies captaincy, are Horwill followed by Pocock. Genia would be the leader of the backs. Horwill is the best alternate because of age & experience. He appears to be highly respected by team mates, both in the Wallabies & at the Reds.

      Of course, I could be reading this totally wrong……….

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