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.