One of the many things that never cease to amaze about our rugby is our obsession with the Springbok captaincy.
The most recent example is what the rugby public gleaned from a recent interview with Springbok coach Johan “Rassie” Erasmus. Careful not to reveal which way he was leaning on who will lead his first Bok team, Erasmus mentioned just about everyone and their claims to the job.
But the response was to highlight those whose names he didn’t say.
It wasn’t as if God was anointing the Moses of SA rugby players, rather it was a rugby coach talking about the guy to lead his team. Erasmus had tried, to no avail, to take the mystique out of the job not long after he was appointed Bok coach.
“People always say we must make the nation proud. That’s true, but you can only do that by playing really well and winning … [The captain] has to understand that and have the emotional intelligence to understand that if we do those things well the rest of it will happen.
“I want someone that lives that, not someone that says that all the time.”
But even Erasmus, who has a personal relationship with the Bok captaincy because he once turned it down, understands that downplaying it isn’t the simple answer. Looking at his possible reasons for turning it down – either feeling too immature for it or not up to the constant scrutiny that comes with it – there clearly is an otherness attached to leading the Boks.
It’s a big deal: over and above your Springbok number you get a captaincy number, your own room on tour and each media outlet breaks out a whole new profile on you as if you haven’t been playing the game for the last five years.
And suddenly, because you can call set moves on the field, corporate South Africa thinks you’re in possession of the sprinkle of gold dust that can turn their company from good to great. If you don’t believe that, think of how former Bok captains Francois Pienaar and John Smit ended up at Rand Merchant Bank and Sharks CEO respectively after they retired.
And I was there when a SuperSport executive promised Jean de Villiers a job with the pay channel the moment he retired in 2015, even though his only qualification was to play for the Boks for two years too long.
That said, there most definitely is a place for an inspirational, diplomatic even, figure to lead the Springboks. Who could forget Pienaar walking the tightrope of this country’s socio-political issues and trying to beat the All Blacks?
And is there a more iconic picture than that of a substituted Smit having to return to the field in the first Test against the British and Irish Lions in Durban, palms facing downwards to signal his troops to calm down after they’d blown a massive first half lead and were holding on for dear life?
But having guys like that comes with a couple of drawbacks.
The first is, the coach sometimes finds himself having to accommodate a player who is not the best in his position in the team (think Pienaar and Tiaan Strauss, and Smit and Bismarck du Plessis). The other is, the rest of the team tend to outsource their leadership responsibilities to the chosen one.
With regards to the latter, how often have our teams fallen to pieces while on form simply because their captain was injured and couldn’t play?
There’s no denying that our past, present and future as a country are taken into consideration when making what should be a simple enough decision of who will lead a rugby team. If you don’t buy that, consider the ultimately uninspired decision to give Eben Etzebeth, and not Siya Kolisi, the captaincy once Warren Whiteley was ruled out with injury last year.
And with that kind of maze to negotiate in picking a captain, what chance of getting a guy like Gary Teichmann, who was best in his position and an important cog – and not the only one – in a complicated machine needing 23 players to play their part for it to work?