There was a time not that long ago when conventional wisdom had it that the captain’s main role on the field was to talk to the referee and his biggest chore before kick-off was to be the man who called the players into the huddle and lead the chant of “manne, manne, hoi…” as they squeezed together.
Gavin Rich writes that this was because of the increasingly all-pervading nature of the coach’s influence, with Rassie Erasmus’s coloured lights and little cards which were used to signal and call moves when he was in charge at the Cheetahs being the most extreme example of a team being led from the dug-out.
But the stunned reaction of a Stormers team that became rudderless for more than 25 minutes after their skipper Jean de Villiers was carried from the field against the Sharks was a reminder that captaincy is far from being a sinecure position in a modern rugby team. Indeed, if you look at how world rugby has panned out since the last World Cup, it may be even as important as the identity of the coach.
Just take a look at the All Black experience last year. Graham Henry’s coaching staff played a big role in messing it up at the outset by playing expansive rugby when a more conservative style was called for in the Tri-Nations. They were man enough to admit it afterwards, and they apologised to the New Zealand public.
It should not be overlooked though that the amazing turn-around in the space of a week between a test in Sydney and another in New Zealand the following week, also coincided with the return of Richie McCaw, the All Black captain. In fact, his management admitted the importance of this when they pointed out afterwards that they had not coached much under the ELVs, but McCaw had played an entire Super 14 season with them.
Before McCaw returned, the All Blacks were poor, losing successive matches to the Springboks in Dunedin and the Wallabies in Sydney. After that, with him wearing his familiar No 7 jersey, they never lost again to those teams, or to anyone else for that matter, and ended the year once again recognised as the world’s best rugby side.
I don’t have the facts as readily at my finger tips, but the Wallabies’ better performances, and worst performances, last year also coincided with when Stirling Mortlock was present or absent.
The Boks slid to No 2, but only during the period that John Smit was off the field. To underline Smit’s value to the Boks, here is a not insignificant fact — since the 2006 first test against England at Twickenham, where the Boks went in with a severely under-strength team, the Boks have not lost a test match that Smit has started and finished.
The only game they lost where he started was the opening 2008 Tri-Nations match against the All Blacks in Wellington, but he left the field after half an hour, when his team were leading.
Smit’s immense role in the build-up to the most recent game against England has been well documented, and his worth as a leader is no longer a point up for debate. It ended on 15 June 2007, when the Boks started in rousing fashion against the Wallabies in Cape Town, only to fall away badly once Smit was replaced after quarter of an hour.
At the next level down, the captaincy has been no less important. Heyneke Meyer’s loss to the Bulls was huge last season, but so was the loss of Victor Matfield, who when he teams up with Fourie du Preez at his franchise settles into a leadership role that he may be more comfortable with than when he is at the Boks.
The Sharks were without Smit last season and Johann Muller was also ruled out for a portion of the season with injury. The Sharks management often lamented what they perceived as a lack of leadership when those players were absent, and it coincided with a dip in their performances.
And on Saturday Erasmus, now with the Stormers, was quick after the game to point to lack of composure as the factor that stymied his team against the Sharks. It was another way of saying his team missed De Villiers, which they undeniably did, for losing a captain becomes so much more problematic when that leader also happens to be a world class player, which Smit, McCaw, Matfield and De Villiers all are.Tweet