There are those in rugby who believe the role of captain is a ceremonial post. There are those who believe the word demands a capital ‘C’. Some believe the loss of a good captain could derail the mightiest side. Others think most captains are easily replaced.

Even last week England skipper Chris Robshaw answered a question on the role of captains by saying: “From the outside world you view it as management, captain, players, and it’s so much more than that. You have a number of leaders on the pitch who run the attack and defence, and who are just big characters in the squad who drive standards and lift the guys if something needs to be said. You have ten or 15 in the squad.”

This sounds like even the on-field leader of one of the world’s top sides is happy to take a back-seat through many facets of decision-making with England. He goes on to explain that there are nuances of being a captain – listening to your team-mates is an underrated skill, he says – but also hints that you don’t need to be a great orator to lead well.

It’s a point worth considering as we plummet towards the Rugby World Cup, tumbling ever nearer to that tangle of pointless rhetoric, hype and hashtags. Most of the time it can be the unsaid that is important.

Calling the shots: Chris Robshaw during England's World Cup preparations

Calling the shots: Chris Robshaw during England’s World Cup preparations

Martin Johnson has often stated that captaincy was overrated, but then this is a man who his charges have described in hushed awe, telling tales of when he grabbed the scruffs of two opponents at the one time or when he simply looked back down the tunnel before the 2003 World Cup final and said nothing. It’s easy to say being captain is overrated when you’re doing it really well. Some captain have the charisma of a can of beans, but if we’re still talking about the other impressive captains 12 years later, it’s safe to assume they had something about them.

Not many Kiwis would say the role of skipper is a waste of time. Not with Richie McCaw still clawing about a rugby field. This is a man who willed his foot not to fall off during an entire successful World Cup campaign; a man who could go down as the greatest All Black ever.

Last year I was fortunate enough to tour New Zealand as England chugged through a three-Test series, and as I passed through Christchurch – and once I got over the arresting, lingering desolation of the city centre – I chatted to a few locals in the rugby community. There was a story that came up more than once.

According to very local legend, the Crusaders had a training session one day and during the warm-up McCaw got talking to a younger player. McCaw was telling the younger man that he should smarten up his social life, become a bit more sensible. Apparently the younger man laughed back, with something along the lines of “what, so I can be boring like you?”

The story goes that McCaw stopped running alongside the younger player, turned, and headed for the stands. He sat there. Thinking of his next moce. Depending on who you ask, one of the other senior players seriously scalded the plucky youngster, while others suggest no one wanted say a thing, giving the gesture real impact. You imagine, true or false, that no one would have to say anything. The younger player was said to have shrunk back into himself, mortified.

Putting in a shift: Ofisa Treviranus facing England in 2014

Putting in a shift: Ofisa Treviranus facing England in 2014

Now, in the last few seasons it has become evident that, on the pitch, McCaw is not infallible. He has been penalised. He has been carded. He has had to shift shirt numbers so that others can get a game at No 7. However, for so many, with McCaw in his role as a captain, it is disgusting even to consider taking pops at him – particularly if he offers his time and guidance.

Maybe there is not really a cult of the captain in rugby. Maybe it is only the leaders of the successful teams we remember. Certainly it is true that captains cannot lead the defence every time, and call all the lineouts and dictate back moves. But it is hard to believe that there is not a high level of respect rolled out for the battered pitch-bosses who barely squeek before and during a game, but who take on big decisions and a punishing calendar without any hint of fuss.

According to reports Down Under, McCaw is set to captain New Zealand against Samoa in his first ever Test in Apia, next week. Ofisa Treviranus has been named already as the man to skipper the Samoans in that contest.

Try telling either of these men that captaincy is overrated.

  • Boyd Crowder

    Most of what determines a good/bad captain/leader goes on out of sight from us so tough to say who the best leaders are, and of course the winners’ leadership looks better.

    That said, the story about John Smit organising a special walk along the beach before the 2007 WC, which I read in his autobiography was very impressive.