What makes a good captain? What persuades men and women to fall in and follow one person rather than another when the pressure comes on?
It is a question which has fascinated and bedevilled coaches ever since sports became a major player in the entertainment industry.
As Dave Rennie goes in search of a leader for his new Wallabies, he will know the ingredients which have gone into the making of great captains in rugby’s recent past.
What is the best position on the field from which to lead a team of rugby players? Over the nine World Cups played since 1987, there have been three winning captains at four World Cups who were flankers (Richie McCaw in 2011 and 2015, Siya Kolisi in 2019 and Francois Pienaar in 1995), two scrumhalves (Nick Farr-Jones in 1991 and David Kirk four year before) two second-rowers (John Eales in 1999 and Martin Johnson in 2003), and one hooker (John Smit in 2007).
Compare that with the most prominent captains of the Australian national team in the last 30 years, and the picture is strikingly similar:
|Tests as captain||Years as captain|
In this list, the mix bears a strong resemblance, even if the balance is slightly different – two scrumhalves, and one lock, openside flanker and hooker apiece.
Take another glance at that list of World Cup-winning captains, and some common features become more evident. Those themes could be split into four main categories:
Background relates to the importance of leaders growing out of a winning culture – Richie McCaw at the Crusaders and Martin Johnson at the Leicester Tigers are obvious examples. A good captain needs to be familiar with the characteristics of the off-field environments which create on-field success.
Toughness means mental toughness – the ability to rebound from adversity and inspire a higher level of performance from those around you when the going gets tough. All of those World Cup captains would qualify on that score.
Communication covers a range of verbal skills – the ability to interface effectively with referees on the field, the media off it, and the capacity to link different units or groups within the same team.
For example, the communication skills that the two South African captains needed to embrace players from extremely diverse ethnic backgrounds. George Gregan, Johnson and McCaw were all expert refereeing negotiators. John Eales was a shining light both as a player and in his subsequent career as an Athlete Liaison Officer for the Australian Olympic Committee and as an ambassador the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation.
Decision-making represents the ability to perform your core role successfully while always demonstrating a responsiveness to key moments, and changes of momentum within the game – “to see the big picture while I had my head up a prop’s backside” as Johnno put it so eloquently. As the old saying goes, to maintain a body on fire, and a head in the fridge at the same time.
Players who play at the hinges of the team, in contact with both the forwards and backs, appear to be particularly well-suited to captaincy. A modern scrumhalf will frequently attend 80 or more rucks in a game and will have a strong feeling for his forwards’ success (or otherwise) at the set-piece and breakdown. The openside flanker remains the primary link between the two units despite all the changes ignited by professionalism.
Natural leaders tend to emerge in the heat of battle, and the captain needs to be the player to whom players will instinctively turn to for guidance when the heat really comes on.
In 2019, that player for the Wallabies was not Michael Hooper but Nic White. The abiding image from last season, the one which cut the deepest groove in this regard, occurred at the beginning of the second half against the All Blacks in Perth:
The Wallabies had just scored a try owing much to White’s ability to spot opportunities on the short-side in attack, but they were still only nine points ahead:
As the camera pans slowly across and the players inhale deeply, all of their eyes are directed toward an animated voice coming from the right. It belongs not to Michael Hooper, but to Nic White.
White must have struck the right note because on the very next sequence of play, the Wallabies scored again with White taking the final pass from Samu Kerevi himself (at 2:55 on the reel).
White’s contribution to the group leadership in the Wallabies’ most impressive performance of the season made his omission from the starting line-up in the critical World Cup games against Wales and England all the more difficult to understand.
He has the background, both with the Brumbies in Australia and the Exeter Chiefs in England, so he knows what a winning culture looks and feels like, and he’ll back in Canberra in time for the start of the 2021 Super Rugby season.
White will also bring back to Australia one crucial aspect of the game Australia tended to lack (or ignore) in the Michael Cheika era – an accurate and reliable kicking game:
White is an excellent box-kicker, especially when he has a big target chasing down the left sideline like either Reece Hodge or Alex Cuthbert. The second instance (taken from Exeter’s outstanding away win at La Rochelle in this year’s European Champion’s Cup) was one of three aerial wins by Cuthbert off White box-kicks during the game.
White also handles the responsibility of decision-making well, and thinks his way through a play. Here are two examples from attacking lineouts, one from each game:
In the first example, the defence is on the back foot and White is able to draw Dane Coles and put Hodge in the hole; in the second it is flooding up around the edge so he takes the ball up through the middle himself before releasing it to his support.
White’s touch and finesse on the pass as the defence begins to condense near the goal-line is absolutely outstanding:
White stays square for long enough to attract the attention of the first three All Black defenders and create a bit of room for Taniela Tupou. An even better example occurred in the first half of the game at La Rochelle:
White’s task is to engage the first three defenders and fix their eyes on the short run from Exeter’s number 12 Ian Whitten:
If he cannot achieve this objective, there will be no space for the Chiefs’ winger to work with off the second pass. In the event, there is just enough elbow room for the wingman to wriggle over for the try.
Nic White is very accurate in these situations:
The pass arrives in front of Henry Slade and that allows him to make the crucial all-in-one transfer across his body.
White’s decision-making is also evident on defence:
This is a difficult situation for the halfback to defend from a scrum. He would like to shift right to join the defensive line on the openside, but with the Chiefs in man defence he has also to monitor the possibility of a number 8 pick-up, creating an extra attacker on the short side:
By dropping to the back of the set-piece he is trusted to react quickly to either option.
Another scrum in the second period illustrated White’s robustness, defending against physically a much bigger opponent:
Fijian centre Levani Botia has a 30-kilo advantage over Nic White in contact, but White does just enough to get in his way for help to arrive and finish Botia off. He pays the price physically for it too, and men will follow the leader willing to put his body on the line.
Michael Hooper’s decision to step down as captain of the Waratahs has opened up the choice of the next Wallabies captain for Dave Rennie.
While Hooper undoubtedly deserves his spot as a player, his selection as captain under a new coach would be more questionable. Although he is in the right segment of the team for leadership (back row) and has toughness in spades, Hooper lacks an obvious rapport with both referees and the media; likewise, his ability to see the big picture from the bottom of a ruck and recognise key junctures in a game for what they are is far from self-evident.
The notion of winning culture at the Waratahs is also something of a distant memory, with the franchise having made only two appearances in the knockout stages of Super Rugby since winning the competition back in 2014, finishing well down the table in the other years.
In Perth versus the All Blacks, the man the Wallabies turned to for guidance and inspiration was Nic White, and he had a large hand in delivering the Wallabies’ best performance of the 2019 season. He was also notably absent from the starting side in the World Cup losses to Wales and England.
White has been part of winning cultures at both the Brumbies under Jake White and with Exeter Chiefs under Rob Baxter, but he is temporarily free of regional affiliation and thus able to become a unifying force with the Wallabies.
He is tough and he makes sound decisions in the clutch, and he has the kicking game Australia has lacked for so long. Mover over number seven, it is time for number nine to move in.