It was once so much easier to be a rugby captain. You were chosen, you led the team out, you took the coin toss, you made key decisions based on a game plan; you shouted, cajoled, berated (if needs be) all to keep your team going. Personality and charisma helped as did physical presence but what it came down to was respect from the other players. What you did not have to be was a politician, a statesman, a provider of unique sound bites. But professionalism and the ever increasing media scrutiny have increased the demands on all sports captains and players. Now a captain will be expected to justify every decision, every call; analyse every play and controversy; he will be expected to be honest, forthright yet politically correct – all before even justifying his place in the team.
Common sense would say that you pick your best team and then you pick your captain…however in rugby (and I imagine most sports) the truly great captains can influence a game much further than their individual performance might suggest. Look at Cricket, the most statistically easy to match performance against captaincy – particularly the batsmen. Two of the most influential captains of the last 20 years for their countries, Nasser Hussain and Sourev Ganguly are both lauded for the contributions as captains and laying the foundation for future success but their batting averages dipped dramatically.
When looking at Rugby, two examples for different reasons from the last world cup. John Smit remained captain of the South Africa despite huge calls for his dropping; Smit had been a great player and servant to the cause but was now a shadow of that player. However despite the enigmatic presence of the likes of Victor Matfield the calls from the Springbok camp whispered that only Smit had the respect of the famously strong (sometimes divisive) personalities of the squad. And what of the World Cup winning Richie McCaw? So important to the cause was he (especially after the All Blacks lost Dan Carter) that McCaw played through an injury so serious he did not train between games.
So what happens when both your form and your leadership is questioned? No one knows this feeling as well as Chris Robshaw. This is a player who has been possibly the outstanding back-row player and club captain of the past 5 years of the English Premiership – his club Harlequins the most successful domestically in that period. Robshaw was made the England captain after one cap by his former Saxons coach and still strong advocate Stuart Lancaster. The early signs were good, England overachieved and there was a buzz around Lancaster’s fresh new England team. A great win against the All Blacks almost a year ago made up for narrow losses to South Africa and Australia where Robshaw was roundly criticised for his decision making under pressure.
The following Six Nations which was solid, with England grinding results until the final decider against Wales when the performance was flat, abject and a frank lesson in how to play high intensity rugby. Again Robshaw’s leadership was questioned, particularly his ability to drive and inspire an international team the way he has done Harlequins. Negative comparisons with the likes of Martin Johnson forgot that the great World Cup winning captain himself had his share of grand slam decider heart ache (and that many of the so called “experts” also felt that Johnson was too quiet to be a great captain).
Robshaw is captain. Lancaster has stood by his man. He is still young to international rugby and international captaincy and will continue to make mistakes but with two years until the World Cup expectation will begin to rise and Lancaster has obviously made his choice that continuity of leadership is required. It is a vote of confidence for Robshaw. His form had dipped – highlighted by his exclusion from the Lions touring party – rested by Lancaster for the summer tour he saw the support for stand-in Tom Wood increase. However that tour has done him good and despite Harlequins difficult start to the season his form has been very good.
When Lancaster was faced with the problem of a permanent captain when he first assumed full time responsibility many felt that had Wood not been injured he may have been preferred. There is something about Tom Wood, a reassuring presence, quiet and more often noticed when not playing – a trait of both Johnson and one of his lieutenants the equally formidable Richard Hill, ironically many felt that Robshaw was a “new Richard Hill.” Some players grow on becoming captains, others grow into the role but either way Robshaw will need his own lieutenants around him, strong experienced characters who will stand by him – Wood should be one.
What Robshaw can’t afford therefore is disaffection in the ranks. Last year Owen Farrell noticeably (albeit rightly) questioned his decision vehemently when told to kick for goal. Farrell and Robshaw’s demeanour spoke volumes – Johnson would have snuffed it out with a furrowed brow…Robshaw will need to learn to curb such strong personalities bring them in line with his thinking – both he and Farrell will hopefully learn the importance of that lesson. If Farrell is to be the World Cup starting fly half he will need to support his captain’s decisions much better – and not so publically undermine them in front of 80,000 fans – or at least assert his opinion in a more fitting way.
One cannot doubt Robshaw’s desire, his energy, his all action battling displays but the scrutiny of the breakdown is even greater – he is not a 7 in the traditional mould of a McCaw, Warburton, Pocock etc. More like a Lewis Moody. That is not his fault. It is up to Lancaster to decide how his back row forms up but with Wood likely to be flanking alongside him in Hill’s old number 6 shirt the pressure is there on Robshaw to perform on both fronts. No one said it would be easy, being all things to all men seldom is.
Stand by the captain? Sam Tripuraneni