Oakfield News: The art of captaincy

  Posted: 12.10.20 at 08:07 by Ralph Henderson

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IN the latest of his occasional articles on the world of rugby - and Thurrock RFC in particular - Ralph Henderson debates the elements that make up leadership and considers the candidates for captaincy for next year's British and Irish Lions' tour to South Africa
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"One of rugby's most important distinguishing characteristics is a wanderlust. It takes the form of a compulsion to take the sport on the road, to seek out those who play in neighbouring or distant or foreign or even alien environments, to encounter them on the field, to absorb their culture and, frankly, to have a memorable social outing away from the strains of normal life, safe in the rock-like communal solidarity of a rugby team." - Stephen Jones.

OWING to work commitments, I was unable to make the last Lions' tour to South Africa in 2009. As I received the almost daily bulletins of the enjoyment of the Thurrock tourists, I grew increasingly determined to be on the next trip and when old friends Lew Hughes and Karl Napieralla began to enquire about travel arrangements, I was hooked!

Touring has always been part of the rugby psyche, whether a trip to Yorkshire as a schoolboy, France and Germany as a youth, numerous tours for Thurrock with the Juniors to Yarmouth or the Cornish Pirates.

In recent times, I have been fortunate to go on trips with the Ospreys, Wales or the Lions - every one a great experience.

With Warren Gatland once again in charge, with nine months still to go, there are already heated debates about who should be selected and who will have the honour of captaining the team?


On the last Saturday before moving to Thurrock in 1970, I played for Abertillery against Newport at Rodney Parade. After the game, I received my travel expenses from the treasurer and got the train from Newport to Grays via Fenchurch Street.

As the train passed through a vast industrial landscape, I began to doubt the wisdom of leaving the "Land of my fathers" and the security of family. When the train arrived in Grays, I walked to my accommodation in Ward Avenue where I was shown to my room by Darth Vader's brother, Bob Prowse and his girlfriend, Margaret!

Feeling kind of homesick, I sat on my dusty bed and wept! Thankfully, my sorrow was short lived. There was a knock on the door and when I opened it there was a familiar face in former Cardiff Training College colleague, Clive Beynon.

His first words were: "Are you fit? Have you got your kit? You are playing for Thurrock next week!" This was quite a surprise to me, as work colleague, Byron Davies had invited me to play for Brentwood. Clive took me up to the old club in Long Lane, where much to my amazement, was my old friend from Cardiff, Lew Hughes being served by the legendary Howie Evans! I learned that day that recruitment of players was a crucial role of captaincy!
The following week, I was selected to play my first game for the "Black and Whites" away to Maldon. Forget about the luxury of the Rodney Parade changing rooms and the crisply laundered kit laid out by the baggage man; we changed on a boat and the captain handed me a well-worn shirt. We crossed a stream to get to a misty pitch and had a pretty dour game.

Luckily, we managed a decisive victory before returning to our floating refuge.

Jim Telfer's memorable team talk - see video link.

As I was preparing to shower, captain Clive approached and said: "Have you got your money?" I replied: "No, nobody has paid me yet !"

He laughed saying: "No you have to pay me your subs for playing. That's for your food. This is England and I have some more bad news for you. Next week you have to buy your own shirt, you borrowed an old one this week!"

I learned a lot more about captaincy that day. In this environment the captain was expected to be the social secretary, team treasurer, selector, trip organiser, peeler of oranges, baggage man, physiotherapist, opposition entertainer, barman as well as coach, tactician, motivator and decision-maker!

Don't get me wrong. To be invited to be club captain was a great honour, but demanded incredible commitment and I will never know how people like Clive, Steve Putz and Charlie Russo managed it on several occasions and the incredible Reece Durrance who was outstanding as the leader for seven consecutive seasons! (I had to "retire" half way through my second term and hand over to the tireless Mick Leckenby!)

There were, however, numerous similarities which transcend rugby wherever it is played.
There is a camaraderie and esprit de corps which sustains you during times of hardship, lifetime friendships which can never be denied.

Among legends - Bob Stirling

"One of my theories is, to be captain on the field and off the field, you need to totally enjoy each other's company." M.S. Dhoni (India's cricket captain).

We certainly enjoyed each other's company. The epic cup journeys of the Seventies and Eighties and the joie de vivre were unforgettable!

The rapport between team-mates was the key to success. The banter was merciless. Mike Stirling was a brilliant No.8. Long-legged and extremely powerful, his ubiquity was his greatest strength. His love of travel gave John Mahoney the inspiration to label Mike with the nickname of Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer. Mike, the perfect gentleman, was as quiet off the field as he was demonstrative on it.

Yet very few people knew that Mike's father had been a great England captain: Robert Victor Stirling, more commonly known as Bob, was a prop forward who won 13 caps as a Leicester player as well as five in his last season of international rugby when at Wasps. Bob Stirling had to wait until the age of 31 before his first cap, but with Eric Evans and Walter Holmes he made up a front row which steered England to Champions in1953 and a Triple crown a year later.

Stirling captained England for the first time in the victory over Wales in 1954 before narrowly losing to the All Blacks a fortnight later. England's12th Triple Crown brought a fitting end to Bob's international career. He was well into his 35th year when he played his last international match, one of England's oldest captains who played in a position not often favoured by coaches or selectors when choosing a captain.

Aaron Woodward, ex captain and new Team Manager.

However, his RAF career which elevated him from the junior ranks during the Second World War to Wing Commander on his retirement in1969, no doubt provided him with the necessary leadership qualities that those around him would reciprocate, without which captaincy is doomed to failure.

Mike Stirling was an outstanding player, a great friend and team-mate. Although still travelling , he finds the time to come down to his old club whenever possible.

From time immemorial, the words of great leaders have inspired, persuaded and motivated people to great achievements. Heedless of their fields of endeavour, these visionaries have led by example and their actions have transformed their words into tangible, constructive outcomes.

Leadership can be a fascinating, yet quite elusive subject.

For some it might be merely an incantation for the bewitchment of the led. For others like Dhoni, it might be action-centred team leadership or alternatively the convincing and aggressive oratory skills of Winston Churchill: "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."

Mercedes Foy

There is no doubt that Churchill's words invoked great passion and determination, essential for survival during World War Two. Passion plays a major role in rugby with triumph or despair often determined by how deeply a captain can harness national pride in the pre match speech. Sometimes this can be counter-productive.

Ardent speeches can stir historical sentiments which inspire players to emulate the heroes of the past. Time-honoured rituals such as the Haka, powerful anthems like "Flower of Scotland", La Marseillaise or even the unofficial ones like "Swing Low" or "Hymns and Arias" when followed by the pre-match call to arms by the captain, will ratchet up a team's emotions and belief in destiny.
Although we often associate this "raising of the temperature" with the team's heavyweights it was a couple of fly-halves who famously turned up the heat when facing their greatest rivals, England.

"Forget the all Blacks the Wallabies and the Springboks, it's beating England, the oppressors, that fires the imagination of every Welshman." - David Watkins

If this wasn't bad enough, the Welsh captain, Phil Bennett was even more vitriolic when he referred to all the festering resentments from a bygone age in his pep talk before the 1977 Five Nations game against England. Reminiscent of Llewellyn the Great he sent his men into battle with his rallying "Crie de coeur": "Look what those b.......s have done to Wales. They've taken our coal, our water, our steel, they buy our houses and they only live in them a fortnight every twelve months. What have they given us........absolutely nothing.

“We've been exploited, controlled and punished by the English - and that's who you are playing this afternoon!"

India Harvey

Perhaps the ultimate in passion was the pre-match speech of Jim Telfer before the Lions' first Test against South Africa in 1997. This became known as the "You are privileged, you are the chosen few, Everest speech" where the sentiments are best conveyed visually.

"........ Being picked is the easy bit. To win for the Lions in a Test match is the ultimate, but you'll not do it unless you put your bodies on the line.........They don't respect you. They don't rate you. The only way to be rated is to stick one on them, to get right up in their faces and turn them back, knock them back. Outdo what they do. Outjump them, outscrum them, out tackle them until they are........sick of you!"

You can watch the video here. (There is some 'choice language!)

It certainly inspired the captain Martin Johnson who led the Lions to a convincing 25-16 victory!

Theorists refer to a multiplicity of leadership styles which emphasise leaders' methods of provision of direction, plan implementation and means of motivation. Most of these techniques can be appropriated to rugby, but predominance is determined by the make-up of the squad and individual needs within the team.

Warren Gatland

The autocratic style is probably less prevalent today unless there is significant remuneration. Even then freedom rather than compulsion is sure to bear fruit with such inter-dependence on team-mates? Furthermore, there needs to be a plethora of leaders on the field, an area where half-backs are key decision makers.

I have always thought that transformational leadership has to be the natural evolution in which captains and coaching teams encourage, inspire and motivate team mates to innovate and create an environment that will help shape the future success of the team.

”Learn from failure and accept responsibility for errors”

Yes, captains would lead by example, but would also be courageous, risk-taking visionaries! Great leaders possess clarity. They are clear in vision and focused on accomplishment. They are decisive and commit to what needs to be accomplished.

Above all they have humility; they learn from failure and accept responsibility for errors. They do not criticise, but encourage.

Mike Stanley, the brilliant World Cup star of Samoa and Thurrock always said: "Sorry, I have made a mistake; I will probably make another one, soon!"

I first came across this "softer", less autocratic style whilst playing for Abertillery against Llanelli Scarlets fifty years ago! At the time we were lying in third place in the Welsh Championship and Llanelli were in second. A home win would have meant reversing positions. As a fresh-faced student, weighing in at a mere 74 kilos, I was playing this game at Full-back.

After an hour and the scores locked at 3-3 the visitors were awarded a five metre scrum and I was stationed on the blind-side. With half of the Welsh team in the pack, there was an almighty shunt before the ball was picked up by legendary Welsh Lion Derek Quinnell, weighing in at 110 kilos. He decided to drive blind where, in spite of my prayers (being a good Methodist) he scored the winning try.

As the final whistle sounded, I was dreading the post-match analysis, but the captain, Brian Wilkins, put his arm around my shoulder and did not mention the try. Instead he thanked me for a try-saving tackle on Andy Hill a few minutes earlier. He emphasised the positive and ignored the negative, meaning there was no confidence crisis later. Llanelli finished as runners up, we finished third, in our highest place for forty years and I had learned a vital management lesson for the future! Brian Wilkins was ahead of his time. He had respect because he knew the importance of camaraderie and democracy.

[H2"If we are together nothing is impossible. If we are divided, all will fail”.-Winston Churchill.

As last year's Premiership draws to a close it has been fascinating to consider the leadership styles of the captains and coaches of the leading contenders. It is interesting to listen to Rob Baxter, the D.O.R. of Exeter Chiefs. Always transformational, he seeks to get the best out of players of all ages and experience. Subsequently he has made fly-half Joe Simmonds his captain as he stands by his evolutionary beliefs.

By way of contrast Harlequins have the longest serving captain in the history of the Premiership in Chris Robshaw. The former England captain, once labelled a six and a half, is still one of the best tacklers the game has seen. A humble, mild mannered man, he has earned the respect of everyone in the game, yet was made a scapegoat for the loss to Wales which led to England failing to reach the knock-out stages of the 2015 World Cup. In the closing stages, England were awarded a penalty and Robshaw opted to kick to touch instead of allowing Owen Farrell a kick at goal, which - if successful - would have resulted in the home team's qualification!

Incidentally, Head Coach, Stuart Lancaster, a man of similar ilk was also replaced, this time by the more autocratic Eddie Jones.

Frederick Stokes, a former student of Rugby School was just 20 years of age and played for Blackheath, whom he represented at the Pall Mall Meeting in January 1871 when the Rugby Football Union was founded. Fred Stokes was then selected as England's first captain securing his place in English Rugby history, a place cemented four years later when he became the first President at 24 and still remains the youngest President to date.

Hence began a long tradition of former players putting something back into the game after retirement (and for many whilst still playing). Just for good measure, Fred's brother, Lennard, another Old Rugbeian became the second captain! Like many great rugby players (our own Ray Davies springs to mind) the Stokes brothers were outstanding cricketers, representing Kent in the summer months.

At Thurrock, many of the early captains had to be autocratic as the role was so multi-faceted.

Many also followed captaincy with other senior roles in the Club. Clive Beynon was one of the most successful captains, uncompromising yet using the skills he had gained at Cardiff to develop players and their core values. High on expectation, low on praise he was also one of only a handful of players to play in the three consecutive Eastern Counties winning teams of the seventies.

Clive captained the team for three seasons before going on to become Team secretary, club coach and is a long-standing committee man as well as Head Groundsman.

Steve Putz is another who captained the side before an outstanding period as Coach and D.O.R.

A key criterion for captaincy has always been that the incumbent had to be sure of his place in the team. Many of Thurrock's best players took on the role over the years, but knew they would end up coaching at the same time. I served under many captains, all of whom were prepared to distribute leadership, particularly to the half-backs. Because most only served for a single term, there are far too many to mention them all but a captain is only ever as good as the quality of his players and the quality of their relationships and there was a 15 year period when team-spirit was immense with Cup success inevitable.

Terry Lax was a tough Yorkshireman, known as Sid, who washed his hair in Fairy Liquid! It wasn't long before a couple of his team-mates brought their own Fairy Liquid to aid his cleanliness by surreptitiously pouring copious amounts on his head whilst he was trying to wash his golden locks.

Eventually he caught Mick Leckenby and John Mahoney at this and spent the night chasing them around Blackshots. Terry's period of captaincy brought great success and much enjoyment.

Geoff Wainwright, who had hailed from Durham University with Mike Stirling, brought a thoughtful and considered approach to the role and was a real gentleman. Unfortunately Geoff was injured prior to the Essex Cup Final against Southend that season, but a much changed Thurrock team did the skipper proud with one of their best performances to seize a great victory.

Kevin Wakeford, another from Durham and former England Under 19 prop wasn't quite so lucky. He was away skiing when his team went down to Southend after a last minute try to the home side.

More success was to follow as Steve Putz took up the reins and, of course, as coach he and Mark Suckling were the architects of the famous victory over London Irish in 1991 when the likeable Richard Gaches led the team.

Prior to this, Thurrock had seen fit to bring in a professional coach and Don Harrigan proved to be a coach of the highest calibre. Don had been a team-mate of Clive Beynon at Cardiff and former Saracens captain.

Working closely with Steve Putz, he brought high standards which paid dividends. This was the partnership which heralded a new era and culminated in another series of cup games which only ended in a narrow defeat at Exeter (now in a European Cup Final). John Mahoney, that magnificent scrum-half, was also a very successful leader.

The eighties saw a series of locally born players inherit the role. The first was former William Edwards Head Boy and Shot Put record holder, Trevor Burge. After Don Harrigan had moved on, Trevor had the wisdom to bring back some experienced players, a trend continued by the brilliant former Saracen, Peter Worsfold.

Graham Holbrook and Ray Page, still amazingly fit and an inspiration to many through his "Hill challenge" performed the role with distinction through transitional periods.

The umbilical relationship between coach and captain was clearly evident when legendary All Black, Hika Reid made Mark Chambers his "right-hand man'. An interesting and versatile captain was Chris Machin, who was Jonny Wilkinson's Best Man!

In more recent times Aaron Woodward and Rob Batho were durable players who were "first out of the trenches", while Dave Stevens, Darryl Worster and Charlie Russo carried on a William Edwards tradition of captaining club and County.

Aaron has succeeded Kevin Hymas as team manager and Dave Stevens is a Senior Coach after proving himself as coach of an invincible school team.

Darryl Worster was hugely impressive, leading his team in 2012 through an impeccable season with only one defeat to win The London One title and promotion to National Rugby.

Currently, Charlie Russo is in his second year of tenure and has forged a real affinity with Director of Rugby, Martin Jones. At the moment ,in spite of the relative inertia, they are working exceptionally hard building the playing base and instilling the core values of which Pride ,Integrity and Unity form the basis.

The final value will be chosen by our young players in order to give ownership to the next generation.

"Our heritage and ideals, our codes and standards - the things we live by and teach our children -are preserved or diminished by how freely we exchange ideas and feelings."- Walt Disney

The art of management in rugby is getting the best out of all players and this is a quality captured explicitly by Thurrock Ladies. Debbie Gay was the first captain and she established the team as a major force in English rugby with her leadership qualities.

When Mercedes Foy took up the challenge this "Warrior Queen", set about her task with Boudiccan endeavour as the Ladies swept all before them! Not only did they win the English Championship and gain promotion, but produced a string of international players including Mercedes herself and the sensational Emily Scott, who now has 37 England caps as well as a score of Sevens caps.

Mercedes' strength of character and commitment made Thurrock the envy of the country.

England World Cup winner and Television pundit, Maggie Alphonsi, described Thurrock as "The best club in the country," whilst on a visit (and she played for Saracens).

Mercedes embraced the whole role of captaincy and ensured a powerful social responsibility was key to winning support. She perfected the art of crowd loyalty, building a core base who were always thanked during the post match speeches she gave to her adoring audience.

This was a new feature of rousing leadership that brought high level entertainment and unprecedented loyalty. When Mercedes decamped to the Cayman Islands it was an inestimable loss, particularly as she had developed a great team around her and had institutionalised her methods not only in the club, but also through the schools.

Fortunately her disciples have continued the in the same vein, with Georgia Cook stepping in both at William Edwards and Thurrock Ladies.

India Harvey was promoted the following season and this mesmeric side-stepper has proved to be a most impressive influence, forging a powerful alliance with ex team-mate Emily Scott and Andy Yarrow.

In her third term of office, India has been a magical player and leader. Her after match speeches have upheld this unique tradition and are always appreciated by those loyal supporters who hang on every word, especially number one supporter and Programme doyen, Jeff Selway.

Sadly, in these strangest and most worrying of times, the coronavirus pandemic has cast a shadow across the world, but there is some light apparent.

The televised rugby has been of the highest order and we are looking forward to the new autumn Championship. Numbers at training continue to be high and the first training session at the new Orsett Heath Academy was sensational!

Shortly, when we embark upon a new year, the optimists are excited about the prospect of a vaccine and a chance to tour South Africa with the British and Irish Lions. The history of the Lions is not one of unrivalled sporting success, but more a chronicle of sporting odyssey.

The first tour to the Southern Hemisphere by a team from the Home Unions set sail from Gravesend in March,1888 (Thurrock's first fixture was against Gravesend and, by a strange quirk of fate, Thurrock's John Player Cup game in 1981 was played at Exeter which was where the first New Zealand Touring team played their first game against Devon!)

Robert Seddon, the first captain, described as a highly popular gentleman, sadly lost his life whilst paddling a canoe early in the first tour and this tragedy characterised the courage of these early explorer/players. Selection for these early tours was often based on availability and wealth rather than prowess and likewise the captaincy.

Incidentally, it wasn't until the ninth tour to South Africa in 1924 that the name 'Lions' was adopted by the tourists and only because the tie of the official party was decorated with a motif of a lion!

Next Summer's tour to South Africa will be the 31st and the captains were frequently chosen because of their ability to assist financially and to deliver after -dinner speeches at fund-raising events.

Many of the initial captains were Irish and there seemed to be a pre-occupation with players from a military background. This became particularly clear when the captain of Triple Crown winners, Wales, Alun Pask of Abertillery was overlooked for the 1966 tour to New Zealand and the role given to Army captain, Mike Campbell-Lamerton!

The tour was a disaster with Cambell-Lamerton unable to make the team and Pask retiring after breaking a shoulder in the Final Test. Alun Pask's place in history will forever be secure as he played the most consecutive games in a Lions Team (22).

The Lions have only been successful on six tours, with the last drawn in New Zealand. The most successful captains have been John Dawes, who was a reliable player and fine passer who was highly respected by the players.

His relationship with coach, Carwyn James and manager Doug Smith (the Thurrock President, Coach and Orsett doctor) was supremely important in terms of tactics and confidence. The Lions of1971 sealed their place in history with the only series win in the "Land of the long white cloud."

Willie John McBride was a genial Ulsterman from Ballymena and will go down in history as the greatest Lion of all time. The magnificent Lions of 1974 were invincible with J.J.Williams breaking the Lions' try scoring record. McBride was a powerful no-nonsense leader who commanded the respect of friend and foe alike.

In more modern times, Martin Johnson's elevation to captaincy before he was even England's captain was a stroke of genius by coach Ian McGeechan.

A Lion himself, McGeechan was well aware of the iron-like qualities Johnson brought to the table. Against all the odds, Johnson's 1997 Lions beat the post apartheid World Champions by two tests to one. Johnson went on to be England's greatest captain, holding aloft the 2003 World Cup.

Captaincy over the past decade has reached new standards as the relationship with the referee has become all important and the best diplomats having the greatest influence. All Black Richie McCaw was probably the first of this new breed and "played" the referee with aplomb. McCaw is universally acclaimed as the greatest captain in history, having twice held aloft the Webb Ellis Cup.

Closely on his tail though was young Welsh captain, Sam Warburton. Warburton was unexpectedly given the Welsh captaincy for the 2011 World Cup. Under his enthusiastic, transformational style, Wales became the favourites to lift the trophy only to be undone by Alain Rolland's early intervention in giving Warburton a red card in the Semi-Final!

Warburton's relationship with referees was exemplary from thereon in and he was rewarded when Warren Gatland named him as Lions' captain in Australia in 2013. Although Sam was injured he was monumental in the First Test and the series was sealed with a try from Jamie Roberts and supreme performances from Alex Corbisiero and Leigh Halfpenny, while that other great Welshman, Alun Wyn-Jones, took the opportunity to lead the side in the Final Test, which was controversial for the omission of former captain ,Brian O'Driscoll.

It was on the last tour to New Zealand that Warburton secured his seat at the high table of Lions' folklore when his sensitivity and negotiating skills in the last Test persuaded Romain Poite to award New Zealand a scrum and not a penalty on the last play.

Warburton is the only captain to lead the Lions on two successful tours. Who would have bet against Warren Garland's favourite son not making it three in a row if injury had not so cruelly intervened?

Once again, the Lions will be facing the current World Champions in a truncated tour of demanding proportions. Some of the English players will be late arriving, although Saracens loss of status should free up some of the leading players.

Two of the principal candidates for the captaincy are from the north London club in incumbent England captain, Owen Farrell and former England Under 20 winner and captain, Maro Itoje.

Both are seasoned Test Lions and have almost impeccable credentials. Owen Farrell has often been a match-winner for club and country, but occasionally his ultra competitive spirit and Rugby League techniques have led to Cards and suspensions! Maro Itoje is usually careful to stay on the right side of the referees, but suffers from over-exuberance when achieving even the most minor success.

In the hothouse atmosphere of Loftus Versfeld, would Gatland prefer his tried and trusted lieutenant from his Wales days, Alun Wyn-Jones? By far the most experienced Alun Wyn -Jones will have been preserved by the long Covid induced lay off. Always a top trainer, this veteran would do a good job, but is he assured of his Test place with the likes of Irishman James Ryan and Itoje favourites for Second Row selection. Another Irishman, Johnny Sexton, is a contender but again a little "long in the tooth"

Much will depend upon what happens in the Autumn internationals and next season's Six Nations. Then it will be down to whom Warren Gatland feels is able to deliver the ultimate "coup de grace" and seal his place as the greatest Lions' coach of all time !

In making that selection there will be no sentiment as Gatland is only too well aware of the words of William Henley oft quoted by arguably that greatest of all leaders, Nelson Mandela ;

"I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul."- Invictus by William Ernest Henley

N.B.[.B These are my own personal thoughts and opinions, intended only to keep Rugby alive during these difficult times.

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