o, captain, my captain

WILL IT BE ‘PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM?’ OR DOES WARREN HAVE ANOTHER SKIPPER UP HIS SLEEVE FOR NEW ZEALAND IN 2017? OR SHOULD HE JUST KEEP HIS POWDER DRY AND UNVEIL HIS CAPTAIN IN THE WEEK BEFORE THE FIRST TEST? NOW THERE’S A THOUGHT.

Quizzes are best left to smug dweebs who think knowledge is a substitute for wisdom but – just this once – here’s a quiz question for you: who captained the Lions in Australia in 2013? If your answer’s Sam Warburton, score one point. If you chuck in Alun-Wyn Jones – he took over in the Third Test when Sam was carried out on his shield in the Second – score five points. But if you’ve two brains and the memory of an Indian elephant and you answer, Sam Warburton, Alun-Wyn Jones, Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell, Rory Best and Dan Lydiate, score two hundred points and take a bow. You are the mutt’s nuts.

In fact of the ten games on that tour of Australia, Captain Sam skippered just four of them, no criticism of him, obviously; he could hardly do them all. Such is life in the Lions. Paul O’Connell – somehow, selflessly, typically – skippered six of the games in South Africa in 2009 – but the leader of the 2005 tour to New Zealand – played three, won three – was Gordon Bulloch, the Master and Commander of the soi-disant ‘Midweek Massive’. And if you’d seen that one coming on New Year’s Eve 2004, you’d have been clairvoyant.

So given the Lions in their past twenty games have been led by nine different players, why is the ‘skippership’ of the Tour such a screaming fascination? This is emphatically not a rhetorical question. I’d like to know. It’s such a quaintly British – and Irish – thing, a throwback – perhaps – to the Lions’ Victorian origins when a single leader of noble strain, approved valour and confirmed honesty was de rigeur; the embodiment being someone who – as Alan Bennett defined it in his play ‘Forty Years On’ – would be invaluable in a shipwreck yet presentable at a christening. It’s all so dreadfully picturesque and public school.

And what reinforces all this twaddle is the newer, stupider and more brutal media age we now live in; the commentariat’s unbending obsession with the mystique of the leader and – more prosaically – its need for one obvious doorstep on which to pour the bucket of shit when it all goes wrong. We’re out of the Euros, we’ve lost the series in India and the Ryder Cup’s on the wrong side of the Atlantic: blindfolds, a last roll-up and backs to the wall, please, Rooney, Cook and Clarke: ready, aim, fire.

Which perhaps explains why – with the New Zealand Tour six, dim, distant months away – we’re already under starter’s orders for the Standard Life British and Irish Lions’ Skipper Stakes; Best 2/1, Hartley 3/1, Jones and Warburton 7/2, and 20/1 the field. Where’s your money? In your pocket? Good. Keep it there, not because there’s no profit to be made but because it’s such a sterile and pointless debate given whoever’s chosen will be about as relevant as a regimental goat.

This isn’t for a single moment to dismiss the value of a presence, a voice and a sharp mind on a match day, both in the huddle and in the referee’s ear. But beyond that, the Captain of the Tour is strictly ceremonial. You get to rub noses with a Maori Chief, carry a cuddly toy off the team bus and avoid having to share with Ben Youngs, whose room generally looks like a crime scene. It’s a bonus, no question, but only a small one.

Warren Gatland’s not shy of Making A Big Decision so here’s one he can make right now: Dump the Tour Captain, appoint a skipper on a match-by-match basis and see who emerges as the right man come the Test Series. After all, that’s how the tour works for everyone else so why not for the Chief Shop Steward? If he had a McBride or a Dawes or a Johnson on the plane – a copper-bottomed, odds-on, alpha male – then fair enough: it’d be – as our cousins across the water would put it – a ‘no-brainer’. But given there’s no obvious candidate, why paint yourself into a corner?

Suppose he goes with Warburton again and he gets injured? Suppose he goes with Hartley and he whacks the referee when he comes in to check the studs? What if Best or Jones loses his form? Suddenly you’re putting on fire-resistant overalls for media conferences and wasting half your life answering endless questions about whether the skipper’s going to be fit for purpose. Just sit back, audition the armband for the first six games and see whose face best fits the team sheet come Test Time.

And that’s always assuming that – at this exalted level – it matters a damn who’s first out of the tunnel. Martin Johnson was forever telling anyone who cared to listen that winning – for example – a World Cup wasn’t about just the captain or, in other words, the skipper’s only as good as his team; the trouble being no one seemed to be paying any attention. Yet of that 2003 vintage, Robinson, Tindall, Wilkinson, Dawson, Back, Dallaglio and Vickery all captained England at some stage of their careers; indeed, the team had leaders coming out of its ears, the point being that – as totemic as Johnson was – leadership  was collegiate, as it always is with the best fifteens. And they don’t come much ‘bester’ than the Lions.

Besides, it helps to share the load. Stewart T Cotterill and Richard Cheetham – University of Winchester – recently published a paper in the ‘European Journal of Sports Science’ entitled ‘The Experience of Captaincy in Professional Sport: The Case of Elite Professional Rugby’, in which they spoke to eight captains in the Aviva Premiership – an ‘interpretative phenomenological analysis’ – who between them identified nine super-ordinate themes of captaincy and fifty-five sub-ordinate ones. Never mind what they were; what you need to understand is that entrusting all sixty-four of them to just one bloke borders on the bonkers.

Conversely, Fransen et al in ‘The Journal of Sports Sciences’ – ‘The Myth of the Team Captain as Principal Leader: Extending the Athletic Leadership Classification within Sport Teams’ – surveyed more than four thousand sportsmen from nine different sports and concluded that more than half felt the captain did not fulfil any fundamental leadership functions. The paper concluded that ‘leadership is spread throughout the team; informal leaders rather than the captain take the lead, both on and off the field.’ In other words – here we are again – it’s not some kind of feudal system but – as Michael Palin pointed out to Graham Chapman in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ – an autonomous anarcho-syndicalist collective.

The one area in which a rugby captain – genuinely – earns his corn is with the referee. In a tight game it can be the difference between winning and losing, as Connacht’s John Muldoon proved against Wasps last weekend. Indeed ‘playing’ the referee in the right way is a genuinely psychological skill but even that – crucially – is not just confined to the captain. Back in 2003 part of Matt Dawson’s brief – the collective again – was to repeat whatever it was the referee was asking for. So if the ref said, ‘England, hands out of the ruck’, Dawson’s job for the next twenty seconds was to clap his hands together and shout, ‘come on guys, hands out of the ruck’. No one paid any attention to him except the referee who – hopefully – felt he had a friend in a white shirt and gave England the benefit of the next fifty/fifty call. Now was that just hokum or did England win the World Cup?

The cult of the captaincy has gone the way of typewriters, cigarettes and good manners and not just in rugby. Put it this way, how many times does the film’s director – alone – get nominated for an Oscar? As Robert Altman said when he accepted his Golden Globe for ‘Gosford Park’ in 2002: ‘I don’t really know what a Best Director is. I guess someone has to turn the light switch on in the morning and off at night. Otherwise it would be chaos.’ Or alternatively, as the late, great Richie Benaud once put it: ‘the hallmark of any great captain is his ability to win the toss.’ Yes, the Lions need to find a Prince of Cats for the Test Series but not right now. Roll with it and trust that cometh the hour, cometh the man.

19 DECEMBER 2016

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