Bok captaincy: don’t sweat it

Craig Ray

If you were asked, at your local sports quiz night, who coached the British & Irish Lions in South Africa in 1974, I’ll bet few would come up with Syd Millar. But if you asked, who captained the 1974 Lions, there would be a much higher percentage rightly naming Willie John McBride.

The Lions of that era are synonymous with Willie John. They were created in his image. It wasn’t Millar who asked every player to find it in his conscience if he could tour South Africa at the time, and it wasn’t Millar who came up with the famous ‘99’ call. It was Willie John.

Outside of New Zealand, few know Sir Brian Lochore coached their 1987 World Cup winning team, but we probably all know David Kirk became the first captain to lift the Webb Ellis trophy.

I have no idea who coached France in the late 1970s and early 1980s but I do know that Jean-Pierre Rives, he of the shock of blonde hair and permanently blood-stained headband, captained Les Blues.

The point is, until the professional era, the coach was usually an ex-player who ran some drills and attended functions in the name of the team. The real leadership and image of the team – successful and important teams at least – was hewn out of the granite that was the captain.

But we have gradually seen the rise of the superstar coach which, as in football, has positioned the mentor as the face of a team or organisation.

Remember the quaint notion in 1986 when Kenny Dalglish was the player/coach of a Liverpool team that won the league and FA Cup double? Even in football, coaching could be a part time job until fairly recently.

In professional rugby we still cling on to the idea that captains are the heartbeat of the team, yet we all talk about the coach and his tactics, selections, mistakes, and successful plots when picking over the bones of a game.

It’s seldom the players’ fault when things go wrong. And as for the captain, he’s hardly ever singled out as the reason the team lacked intensity or composure at a crucial moment. The coach is the scapegoat.

And that’s fine because coaches have a far greater impact on tactics in the modern era. He is like a giant squid with tentacles linking a barrage of assistants to his brain, empowering them to command their own role in the set-up. The captain in many ways is now just another coaching tentacle.

Which brings us on to the Springbok captain for the upcoming June series against England and the one-off Test against Wales.

It’s almost guaranteed that the starting team that takes on Wales in Washington will be 100% different from the starting team that meets England in the first Test in Johannesburg, which means there are likely to be two different Bok captains in consecutive weeks. This underlines my point that Rassie Erasmus is going to have far more impact on the personality and image of the team than Warren Whiteley, Siya Kolisi or whoever he names the skipper.

It’s not to say an influential captain isn’t necessary, because people are people and they respond to leaders, deeds and words. But every team now has ‘leadership groups’ who ‘share the load’, meaning the job has become too much for one man to completely hold without it turning into a dictatorship and a disaster.

As brilliant as Richie McCaw was as a player and captain, he had hardened leaders such as Conrad Smith, Daniel Carter, Ben Smith, Mils Muliaina, Ma’a Nonu, Kieran Read, Brad Thorn and Andrew Hore to turn to at various stages of his tenure.

That leadership group was created by Graham Henry and Steve Hansen, who were, and are, the undisputed leaders of the All Black set up.

So when we become worked up about who captain’s the Boks in 2018 and beyond, let’s remember there are several good candidates for the job, and more than one player will lead them between now and 2023.

But if it all goes according to plan, only one man will coach the Springboks until then, so there is only one image in which this team is going to be crafted. And it won’t be the captain’s.

- Craig Ray

Let's chat

  • Al

    I disagree – say what you like about John Smit as a player at the end of his career versus Bismarck. If he was on the field captaining side against Jspan at the last world cip, we would not have lost it. If WW has captained the side against Ireland last year would they have looked so completely demotivated and uninterested? I was there, you should have seen the warm up!

  • deme lucas

    who would you like to be the captain for 2018 and beyond. the ” candidates”??

    • Sharky

      I don’t think Joe Public has enough of an insight into the Bok locker-room, the personalities at play and Rassie’s plans to make a call on that. We can probably come up with a shortlist or 3 or 4 guys. But I wouldn’t go further than that.

      My shortlist: Warren Whiteley, Eben Etzabeth, Siya Kolisi and (my bolter) Handre Pollard.

      These are in order of likelihood IMHO. I’d say there’s a 99% chance that it’s one of the first three and an 80% chance that it’s one of the first two.

      • Chris Coetzee

        Warren nor Eben can be captain. They are still injured and wont have time to play in any games to be match fit. I would go for Siya Kolisi. My shortlist if all were match fit: Warren Whitely, Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzabeth or Handre Pollard.

  • Sharky

    I’m in two minds regarding this article. Yes, the coach(es) dreams up the gameplan and the defensive/attacking structures, but it is the spirit and belief among the team which translates those plans into success on the field. And in the heat of battle it is the captain who has to radiate that belief in the gameplan and maintain that team spirit. So a captain has to have the respect of the players, but at the same time he has to be an extension of the coach on the field. In rugby we don’t (yet) have earpieces in the scrummie’s ear blasting plays from the coaches’ box, so the coach has to trust the captain to be his voice on the field. So the choice of captain is vitally important – he must have the right temperament, the respect of the players, AND he must 100% buy into coach’s vision. That is why a particular captain may be perfect for the Bulls but absolutely suck at the Sharks – the coaches, gameplans and personalities at play may be totally different.

    We all remember Mallet dumping Teichmann ahead of the 99 RWC – a mistake that probably did enough to cost the Boks their title. So maybe… just maybe… the choice of captain does matter.

  • Dean

    I’m a big fan of Kolisi. He has come through the system and earned the right to be a Springbok. He was awesome last year and I would not drop him on the basis of a slump in Super Rugby form. Habana and JP Pietersen, when they were not playing well for their franchise, were extremely good for the Boks. They give that extra bit when they put that jersey on. Kolisi is that type of player. From what I’ve read, Duane Vermeulen commands the respect of those around him. Heyneke touted him as a future Bok captain. Coetzee and Etzebeth praised the effect he had coming in on the NH tour last year. He was the first overseas based player that Rassie contacted when he became Bok coach. He led the Boks last year against France, when Etzebeth was subbed. I’d select him as the captain with Kolisi as the vice.

    As it stands, Vermeulen will almost certainly be chosen as the starting no 8 for the England series. He is guaranteed his spot in the team. He is moving back to SA next year and is very much a part of Rassie’s World Cup plans. This idea of only selecting locally based players or a captain from SA is old school thinking. Rugby, like football is fast becoming a global game.

    • Herman Schroder

      Dean, In my opinion Kolisi is not an inspirational captain as can be seen from the poor form of the Stormers this year and last year for that matter under his captaincy. Combine that with a poor coach in Fleckie, especially if you consider the talent at their disposal then there is little reason to consider him for Bok captain. . A really inspirational captain is not only massive and consistent with his own game but requires leadership qualities, leads from the front but most importantly possesses rugby nous. Very few possess all those traits. Whiteley fits the bill so lets hope he will recover in time.

      As for Vermeulen. I’ve been watching him in the Top 14 for Toulon this year and quite frankly imo he is a spent force. Spent most of his time running around like a headless chicken. I also don’t believe he is all that committed to SA rugby. Rumours of Japan or a SA pension who knows. In any case there are far more skillful young players right here at home untainted by the past. Cheers.

      • Dean

        I admire your honesty and intellect. However, I don’t agree with your stance on the local vs overseas players. If you look at this year and see where our franchises are, it’s a clear reflection of the local game in South Africa. It’s pitiful. We can make excuses for some of the losses but the overall picture is not good at all. The true Super Rugby log would actually place the Lions in 3rd (currently), with 4 teams able to overtake them with 2 games in hand. That could place them in sixth by the end of the season were it not for the daft conference system. All the other franchises don’t even require a mention as none of them would finish in the top 7, most likely. That’s if Super Rugby was based purely on performance. The idea that Super Rugby is so far ahead of the rest of the club competitions in Europe is also not true. The NH sides are extremely strong and we have seen Ireland and England in the top 4 regularly. Scotland are also on the rise. Experts are backing NZ, Ireland and England as the top 3 for the WC. Australia is no longer a force and neither has SA been for many years. Argentina are in a steep decline. The NH has caught up with the SH. I expect Rassie will pick a balanced squad of experienced internationals combined with talented youngsters. Most of those experienced players are playing overseas and being paid massive amounts of money. Was Rassie not drafted back into the fold, partially based on the great work he did with Munster these past few seasons? There must be some weight in that.

      • Dean

        If Whiteley is fit, he would be first choice no doubt. He is an inspirational leader, as was shown when he was playing for the Boks.

  • Gary

    Mostly agree, it must help if you have a great captain. But it comes down to the coaches. Just watched Sumwolves down the Stormers. The latter, with great players over the last 5 years, produced nothing under Coetzee and Fleck. With No-name Players, the Sunwolves are coming into their own, having skinned Reds last weekend. Both their coaches, Joseph and Brown, are first-class. We know what Mitchell is doing at the Bulls and we’ve seen what Ackerman did at the Lions. Today, it’s about the coach. Stormers have had great captains over the years, but not great coaches who couldnt do anything with all their stars.

  • phil

    Jaco kriel, Duane Vermeulen, Handre Pollard are the players Rassie shoukd be looking at

  • The great one

    Time for Siya has come. He’s destined to be the Captain, don’t you people see that. Every captain who’s put above Kolisi will get injured fallout like flys. Adrien retired from int Rugby then Whitely, Eben, Jack Kriel (all got injured). Siya is the only guy left. Let stop undermining his capabilities.

    Let take a gamble with Pollard and name him Captain, trust me on this one he won’t finish that match (injury calling). The time for Siya has come.
    Make no mistakes Rassie

  • gerhard van tonder gerhard van tonder

    I disagree. It is important to supporters who their Captain is. If Rassie underestimates this aspect then he was too long out of the Country and is he out of touch. Saturday night Rassie can do the right thing and get 55m people to support the team by just appointing the right Captain.

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