O Captain! My Captain!

First things first, it was another intriguing (if at times unspectacular) weekend of Six Nations rugby.  Wales produced, what’s being called, a ‘clinical’ performance to beat the Italians in Rome.  Another description would be a ‘dull as dishwater’ performance, but then the weather was pretty atrocious and winning away is never easy.  That said, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed by the Welsh approach in the last 20 minutes.  By then, the Azurri were disinterested and resigned to defeat.  In a year where the championship could be decided on points difference,  the decision not to go for more tries in the last quarter looked at best foolish and at worse unambitious.  The raft of substitutions made by Rob Howley and his coaching staff left a bitter taste in the mouth, summed up by James Hook’s withering kick into touch to cue the final whistle.  Wales now march onto Murrayfield looking to extend their impressive tournament record away from the Millennium.  They’ll have to go some to beat a Scotland side that backed up their stylish dispatch of Italy with a miraculous victory over the Irish this weekend.  The Scots are in somewhat uncharted territory now having notched up successive victories for the first time since 2001.  They will be looking to continue their winning run in two-week’s time and Wales will have to play better than they have done so far this year to stop that from happening.

The weekend’s best game was played at Twickenham.  England v France was a great match for 60 minutes before turning into a right French farce of a game thanks to Philippe Saint-Andre’s mind-boggling decision to remove his best players from the pitch, including the steady Francois Trinh-Duc at fly-half.  I know I’ve had some words to say about Freddie Michalak in other blog posts, but from the moment he stepped onto the field on Saturday things started to unravel for Les Blues.  It was as if the management had not learnt anything from the first two rounds of the tournament…or even from the first half where things had begun to click again for this bewilderingly bonkers outfit.  Three losses out of three is no less than they deserve.  And fair play England (which is hard for this Welshman to admit) but they produced some great play to win, summed up by the centre partnership of Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi who were outstanding in defence and attack respectively.   It was a little strange therefore that ‘Man of the Match’ went to Chris Robshaw.  Don’t get me wrong he did his job well but wasn’t the stand out performer I fear.  Yet, come the 78th minute, Sir Clive Woodward announced that Robshaw was to receive the accolade and a shiny medal.  So what’s really going on here?  Prepare to get riled England fans:

I suspect that by awarding England’s leader with ‘Man of the Match’ on Saturday,  we have begun to see the start of what will become a relentless campaign by both the media and notable former players to get Robshaw named as captain for the forthcoming British and Irish Lions Tour.  You may regard this theory as a little far-fetched but the signs had already started to emerge on Sunday morning when the BBC Sport website published an article entitled ‘Robshaw can lead Lions – Tindall’.  To be fair to Mike Tindall he merely claimed that Robshaw would have to be regarded as a contender (which is true) but it seems the temptation is already too great for the media outlets as they proceed to proclaim public backing from England heroes of the past.  As the Men in White move ever closer to the coveted Grand Slam, expect Robshaw to be exalted to a plane higher than the one he currently deserves to occupy.

At this point I should offer some relief to my English friends – I think Chris Robshaw is indeed a very good player who is only going to get better.  I admire his work ethic and no-nonsense style of play, but I don’t think he will be Lions captain for two reasons.  Firstly, he’s being played in the wrong position by Lancaster and Co.  Robshaw looks more like a number 6 than a number 7 and the performance of Australia’s David Pocock over the weekend reiterated the Lions need for a proper ‘fetcher’ at number 7, which Robshaw is not.  Secondly, I don’t think he will be captain for the same reason I’m unsure Sam Warburton or Jamie Heaslip will be captain.  There is so much competition for places in the back-row (as discussed in last week’s blog) that it’s hard to justify selecting a ‘certain to be starting’ player in this area.  Does this matter?  According to Lions Head Coach Warren Gatland it does:

“The thing at the moment is your captain has to guarantee selection and there are areas where there are two or three players in a position.  I’ll back myself to make a call on someone who is not just a good captain but is playing well enough for their spot.”

If Robshaw gets the nod at 6 for the first test, he could well lead the Lions onto the turf at Brisbane, but there’s no guarantee he will even start.

So what makes a good captain nowadays?  Some have argued that the role is a lot easier in the modern game due to the requirement of several leaders across the pitch – scrum leaders, line-out leaders, defensive leaders etc.  It seems decision-making on the field is now a process reserved for the inner-sanctum of the team rather than the sole responsibility of one man.  This may explain why coaches are seemingly more willing to change their captains before major tournaments (or even during matches through substitution).  There is one trait, however, that remains a feature of a good captain and has not changed since the dawn of professional rugby – the ability to lead by example.  The highest of plaudits are seemingly always reserved for the captain that ‘leads from the front’.  Warburton (when he’s playing well), Robshaw and Wales’ record-breaking Ryan Jones have all received such praise in recent times.  Conversely, the Irish media have bemoaned ‘a lack of leadership’ following the defeat on Sunday.  It seems that Jamie Heaslip’s tenure has not gone down well in Ireland following the decision to strip Brian O’Driscoll of the job before the Six Nations began.  That call by Declan Kidney always looked a little odd, even taking BOD’s recent injury into account.  Of course, everything is clearer in hindsight, but you have to wonder whether the result at Murrayfield would have been different if O’Driscoll had been able to ‘lead from the front’.  He has been consistently one of the best players and best captains over the last decade of rugby and I would not be surprised if he eventually gets the call to lead the Lions Down Under.

But what do you think? Who, in your opinion, are the greatest captains in rugby history and why?  Here’s some names to get you thinking – Johnson, McCaw, Eales, Willie John McBride, Wood, Smit, Pienaar…

…strange how all of these names are forwards.  Perhaps the thing that makes a good captain isn’t the ability to lead after all, but rather the capacity to look physically menacing.  Move over O’Driscoll – the Lions captaincy goes to Schwarzenegger.

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5 thoughts on “O Captain! My Captain!

  1. Feel for Heaslip, must be pretty difficult situation for him when Ireland’s messiah is not only on the pitch but most of the time acting like he is the captain still. I don’t think Kidney has handled it very well, it clearly makes sense to nurture Heaslip into the role but O’Driscoll doesn’t seem to be on the same page. I am not sure his current position in the media is that different from Robshaw’s before the New Zealand game and now Robshaw is the favourite (with English bookies at least) for the Lions captaincy.

    I am really not sure who will be captain for exactly the reason you mention that most are not assured of their place on the plane let alone in the starting 15. I think if Lydiate, Croft & Ferris are all missing it will increase the chances of the back row contenders especially as there are feasible combinations that include 3 candidates all starting in the back row and none. I do like a flutter though and with that in mind you can currently get 16/1 on Ryan Jones which I’m sure will only get shorter as the 6 nations go on.

    • I think you’re quite right Graham – O’Driscoll doesn’t seem to be happy with the current situation. At the start of the 6 Nations I heard Keith Wood (BOD’s predecessor as captain) give his take. Apparently it boils down to BOD not being consulted – not only over the immediate change at skipper, but the longer term transition that you talk about. I think Kidney has to take some flak here, if not for his choice of captain then for his man-management.

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