Here’s a list – David Kirk, Nick Farr-Jones, Francois Pienaar, John Eales, Martin Johnson, John Smit, Richie McCaw. Here’s another list – Steve Borthwick, Mike Tindall, Lewis Moody. The first group of men are winning World Cup captains. The second group consists of England captains under Martin Johnson. So how do you bridge the gap?
That is the biggest question facing Stuart Lancaster, the new England coach. He needs a leader of men, not a drill sergeant. If England are to have any hope at the next World Cup – and home advantage should give them that hope – then they have to find a captain who can live with that international elite.
At the moment perhaps only New Zealand and Wales have a man of such stature, although you could make a weaker case for Australia, Ireland and Argentina. Bismarck du Plessis may become that man for South Africa in the intervening years. But who is Lancaster’s leader?
There appears to be three candidates – Dylan Hartley, Chris Robshaw (both captains of their Premiership teams) and Tom Wood. Hartley has to be ruled out because his disciplinary record just isn’t good enough. The opposition will want to provoke him and Hartley has yet to prove that he can control the beast as Johnson learned to do.
So that leaves Wood or Robshaw. One of the first principles of captaincy (and it haunted Borthwick) is that you have to be sure of your place in the side. Neither Wood or Robshaw is a certainty (especially with Wood now struggling with a foot injury), but then the same could be said for the entire XV that will start the match against Scotland.
Lancaster has stressed the need for leadership, because he is well aware that a complete breakdown in authority undermined England’s 2011 World Cup. Lancaster’s language stresses his belief that talent alone is not enough at this level.
The head coach has stressed words like “selfless”, “humble,” “respect,” “responsibility” and “not arrogant”. He has thrown Danny Care out of the squad for drunkenness. Some of the older, us-and-them lags, like Nick Easter, have gone. So have some of the preeners.
I am thrilled about the start that Lancaster has made. He is a bit short of quality players, particularly in midfield, but at least he is looking to set a standard. But as Graham Henry found out over the years, he cannot set the standard by himself. Henry needed his captain and leadership squad to take the players with him.
Lancaster says: “Talent gets you there, character keeps you there.” Before the 2011 World Cup I wrote a column hoping that England would lose. My objections were to the stultifying bashers in the midfield, the opportunistic selection of overseas players and the dreadful arrogance of many of the squad.
So I have good reason to be happy about the start Lancaster has made. Shontayne Hape and Mike Tindall are out altogether and Matt Banahan has been relegated. That’s the bash bashed. Danny Care has been disciplined, James Haskell is ineligible and Easter has been dropped. That’s a good start, although Lancaster will need to keep an eye on the egotistical behaviour of some of his outside backs. And the squad does look, well, a bit more English.
So I wish Lancaster well, although I fear England will struggle initially with a lack of quality and experience. But if the new coach is to put some respect back into the shirt, he needs a captain who can take the players with him. Wood or Robshaw or A.N.Other? Who do you think?