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The Roar


How does one root like a captain?

Roar Guru
15th August, 2011
2651 Reads

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.