Wasps and England star talks about his role as a captain
In what is likely to be their career highlight, Richie McCaw or Stephen Moore will lift the Webb Ellis Trophy at Twickenham on Saturday afternoon.
But beyond tossing the coin, politely badgering the referee and being the first victim of the banal “how does winning/losing feel” post-match interview question, just how much influence a rugby captain has on his team is open to debate.
Rugby fans tend to remember the inspirational figures of legend, around whom so many great after-dinner stories centre. Grown men go misty-eyed at the mention of the likes of Willie-John McBride, Martin Johnson, Sean Fitzpatrick, Finlay Calder, Jean-Pierre Rives or Francois Pienaar.
Wasps are trialling a joint captaincy arrangement this season, so flanker James Haskell and former-Worcester prop Matt Mullan are sharing a (presumably well-stretched) armband. The England No.6, who has plenty of captaincy experience, sees the role as being an important one, but more as being part of a wider decision-making group than someone who makes decisions in isolation.
“The captain can’t just be an on-the-field mouthpiece for the coaches,” says Haskell. “You need free thought and the ability to put your own messages across in your own style, although you have to broadly agree and be pulling in the same direction as the coach.
“The role of the other senior players is also important; you meet with the coach and discuss things, and sometimes the captain might not agree, but the five senior players do, so you form a group opinion.
“People overplay the role of the captain with the referee. If you have an antagonistic demeanour, and you’re not respectful, you will rub the referee up the wrong way because he is a human like everyone else.
“You are never going to coerce a referee into making a decision; you can highlight the faults of the other team, but again referees are human and they will always look at a situation and give some players more leeway than others.
“So you can ask the question, but you’re not going to change anything and that’s a good thing, we have got to trust referees to make decisions.”
The World Cup has brought the role of the captain in on-field decision-making into sharper focus. As England skipper Chris Robshaw and his Japanese opposite number Michael Leitch found during the competition’s group stages, the gap between hero and zero can be very small.
Haskell believes that experience teaches a good captain how to handle most situations. However, he also believes that the modern game rarely requires the captain to take big decisions alone and emphasises the role played by the wider leadership group.
“On the field, you know what’s best through years of experience,” he says. “Someone like Lawrence Dallaglio, when he was Wasps’ captain, would know what the right decisions were in that way, but the coaches are also able to feed messages on – the support team are all mic’d-up, so everyone knows the score.
“On a day-to-day basis, the coaches allow you to make decisions during a game. It hasn’t happened, but if you were about to make the wrong decision, I expect a water-boy would run on and tell you what to do.
“Sometimes I will have a chat with Dai before the game, and work things out beforehand, so if we have to make decisions late-on about bonus points or whether or not to kick at goal, we all know the score.
“In the latter part of last season, when we played London Irish, at one point a draw would have got us through, then Sale went ahead in their game, so we were going out of the European Cup.
“Every decision is made to try and win the game and that one eventually worked out fine, but it is good to have those conversations beforehand.”
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