The loss of Alun Wyn Jones has opened up the age old debate whether captaincy is still a major thing in the age of professional rugby.
Personally, I have ended up in many vigorous debates on this subject, as my views are not always popular with the armchair supporters out there. I bear the scars of these discussions, but hey, supporting Transvaal/ Golden Lions for 55 years makes you a tough person, so here goes.
The first question one needs to answer is what the main goal of any rugby team is. You may get some idyllic responses like: " We just want to have fun" or " I enjoy the brotherhood" and many more. But mostly they are secondary to the fact that any team would like to win. If you win, you will have fun as well. If you keep on losing, the brotherhood will soon disappear.
To achieve the main goal of winning, you obviously need to have a great team. You need good, solid players in all positions. You need a good coach. You need a strategy, you need to be fit and so on. But let's just say you have all that, and you encounter opposition that share exactly the same attributes? How do you beat them on the day? By outthinking them on the field. By making the right decisions. This offers me the opening to make my views known on captaincy.
I believe that captaincy is amongst the top 3 choices you have as team management. What squad you need for the year, team selection on the day, and who will captain the side for the season.
A captain needs to be a leader. Players should not be forced to listen to him, follow his example or execute his instructions. Supporters must trust him, have faith in him and follow him and the team blindly.
A captain needs to be an excellent communicator. He should have the ability to get his views across to the team clearly an unambiguously. He should be able to do the same with referees and other officials, and stand firm without being arrogant.
A captain needs to have in depth knowledge of the game. He must know all about tactics, laws of the game and what gives you the edge. He also needs to have excellent judgement. When do you need to be firm with a player that made a costly mistake, and when do you just pick up a player with a pat on the back. When to query a referee's call, and when to let it go.
A captain needs to be a decision maker. I like captains to make decisions on the field, and not look despairingly at the coach every time he needs to make a call. When a predetermined game plan does not work out, change it on- field. When your interpretation of the ruck rules is clearly different to that of the referee, change the way you play at the rucks. A team can change, a referee will not. When to go for touch, when to scrum and when to kick for posts can win or lose games when not done correctly. And sometimes you need to think further than the present game.
I will give you one example, that happened in the last round of Currie Cup. Time is up, you get a penalty, and you are 5 points ahead. The instruction to the team was to tap, kick out and get a cold beer. Win in the bag. What about the following instruction: " Are you confident you can reach the dead ball line from here with a place kick? Do it- 3 points will deprive the opposition of a bonus point, and there will be no re- start"
A captain needs to be a diplomat. Anyone can look up the meaning of that in a dictionary, but basically it means that you can send someone to hell and make them look forward to the trip.
A captain must have the ability to handle the media with confidence. And the insight to say the correct things at the right times. Let's start with my pet subject i.e. post match interviews. Please guys, after a 70- 0 drubbing, there is really nothing positive you can take out of the game. Tell your fans that, and tell them what you will be doing differently next time. A captain should know his players, their personal lives, politics, rules of the game and possess a common courtesy that will make even difficult interviews go well.
A captain needs to be an good listener, and have a very small or no ego. Often someone else in the team might have a better idea at the time, be it in training or during a game. Listen, acknowledge and implement. It is a great way to earn respect.
Having said all that, how do you select a captain? Let's look at some examples from our own immediate rugby past. At this point I need to apologize to the gents I will be using as examples, as I really admire you as players. Wind back history to 1995. There were probably at least two better 6 flanks in South Africa, but Francois Pienaar got the nod. Kitch Christie, wily individual that he was, knew that only an outstanding captain will lift the trophy. Forward to 2007. In my opinion Bismarck du Plessis was a marginally better hooker than John Smit, but when the team was in trouble behind the uprights during playoffs, only Smit could make the speech that brought them back into contention. Read Jake White's biography to understand what a truly fantastic captain Smit was on and off the field. Siya Kolisi must be the most debated player in South Africa at present, but no one can dispute that in Japan he was the right guy, at the right place at the right time. Of course we had better flanks, but at the time not a more suitable captain. Our own beloved Warren Whitely at the Lions makes another perfect example for my case.
Alun Wyn Jones possesses most of the attributes described above, and is quite an imposing figure to boot. Add to his responsibilities the fact that he is leading a team made up of different cultures and political beliefs. Made even more difficult by making them recent rugby enemies during domestic tournaments. He is capable of handling all that. BUT- is he the best lock in all of the 4 nations? I don't think so. In fact, I have seen better locks in the premiership. Which brings me to my point. I will always select the captain first, and then the rest of the team around him. History proves me right in most cases.
I have no knowledge of the reasons behind Gatland's choice as captain. Murray is a great leader in Ireland but he is not Jones. Jamie George has grown into the captains role over time. But he is not Jones. Even Farrell probably put up his hand- no wait that is not possible as apparently he does not have arms!!
There is a player in Ireland that possesses most of the attributes I discussed. He retires at the end of the year. If CJ Stander was not a South African, he probably would have been the most able replacement as captain for this team.
I will go on record to state that the loss of Alun Wyn Jones in all probability cost the British and Irish Lions a series victory in South Africa.................