Is the art of leadership dying in the English game?
April 15 2012
In recent weeks, I've been asking myself this question more and more and in light of recent performances from the Saints I pose this question to you all: Is the art of leadership dying in the English game?
I ask this question not just as a Saints supporter, but as a supporter of English rugby. Over the course of the past two seasons the Saints have suffered massively when missing their talisman and captain Dylan Hartley. Now any team is likely to suffer a drop in on-field leadership when their captain is missing, but for Northampton the issue seems to be larger than most. Or does it? You only have to look at Saracens struggle when Steve Borthwick was absent, and you have your answer.
Ten years ago captains were rife throughout the sport, even if players didn't wear the proverbial armband, they still had something to say in the changing room, in the huddle and under the posts. Chat was frequently heard from all corners of the pitch. Take a look at the England side that won the World Cup in 2003; that side had leaders in every single position on the pitch - many of the side either had or went on to captain their country following the tournament's conclusion and Martin Johnson's retirement. The likes of Thompson, Vickery, Kay, Hill, Back, Dallaglio, Dawson, Wilkinson, Greenwood, Tindall , Cohen and Robinson were never short of something to say, whether playing well or playing poorly, there was always obvious leadership.
Compare the World Cup winning side to the XV that played during the Six Nations in 2012, and there are a distinct lack of true, natural leaders. Do the likes of Hartley, Croft, Robshaw and Farrell inspire and lead the line to the standard of Johnson, Hill, Dallaglio and Dawson? My answer? They're not even in the same league.
Historically England has had a regular production line of leaders, from Wavell Wakefield to Bill Beaumont, Dean Richards to Will Carling, Tim Rodber to Martin Johnson - I could be here for days naming the top-class leaders prevalent throughout the English game. However, in the last five or so seasons, the leadership talent-pool has began to dry up, quite drastically. No longer do we ask the question of 'Which leader do we make our captain?' - now we simply struggle to identify a leader and slap the title of captain upon them. If we take a look across the board at Premiership captains, there is a distinct lack of true English leadership. Yes, Steve Borthwick, Chris Robshaw, James Hudson, Hartley, Luke Narraway, Shaun Perry and Stuart Hooper are all English and are all captains of their clubs, but are any of them the talismanic figures that lead sides into battle with no fear and command the respect that has held for the likes of Beaumont, Richards and Johnson?
(Before you ask, I'm not damning the qualities of Robshaw, Hartley and Co - merely raising a comparison to days gone by.)
This leads me to ask another question: Why is there such a lack of leadership?
Does the issue lie with professionalism? In the amateur days, leaders were rife -perhaps leadership was something that came from living 'in the real world'? Having to deal with balancing work, leisure and family in the amateur era undoubtedly gave players a sense of maturity and respect for each other, and perhaps it was that respectful, but frank and honest atmosphere that such leadership was able to blossom from.
Another issue with leadership and professionalism may be that young, unproven players are under such pressure to perform to the standards of seasoned professionals and veterans that their leadership abilities are pushed to the very back of their conscious as they focus on the basic aspects of their game. Indeed, it is a great rarity that any side is captained by anyone in their young twenties - it is much more likely that the armband will be passed to a veteran of the side, rather than the young tyro who has just broken into the side. Take the case of James Gaskell, who at the time of being awarded the captaincy at Sale was a young and very promising back five forward that was making waves comparable to Courtney Lawes in the Aviva Premiership. Fast-forward six months and not only did Gaskell lose the captaincy to the vastly more experienced Mark Cueto, but Gaskell's performances also suffered drastically. That is not to say that Gaskell did not deserve or warrant the captaincy, but perhaps due to his freshness to the professional game the added pressure of the captaincy was too much to cope with.
The problem we face now is, what can we do about it? I would argue that it is the mentality of professional rugby in Britain that is preventing the development of natural leaders. If a player is captain throughout age-grade rugby, they are often either lost into the chasm of the nearly-men and also-rans that never make the step up to the professional game, or they are not provided with the appropriate opportunity to lead their club sides. Whether that time is as a captain, or just regular game-time where they are allowed to settle into the side and develop not only their playing abilities, but their understanding and leadership is not particularly important - see Sam Warburton's rise to Wales captaincy as a model perhaps? However, the younger generation of players need to be encouraged to talk, be honest and provide their opinions on things - make their voice heard. It seems that in this modern era of the game, if you don't set the world alight as a youngster, your opinion in the team is not held in such high regard. Let us not forget that some of the best leaders of the game have barely made it into their respective sides - John Smit as the best example. But if you have something to say, and it is something that needs to be said at the appropriate time, then say it. Whatever your age or standing in the squad.
So, what of the situation at Franklins Gardens? I started this piece talking about how much we at the saints miss our captain Dylan Hartley while he is unavailable - but what can we do about it? Phil Dowson, Calum Clark and Lee Dickson are more than capable of running through the motions of being a captain - making the decisions when penalties are awarded and talking to the referee when needs be - but none of them lead and inspire quite like Dylan does; they don't make the big plays and set the standard like Hartley. What are we to do about it? Do we look to players such as Ben Foden or Christian Day to up their displays of leadership? Or do we look to bring in another talismanic ever-present figure of the likes of Xavier Rush or Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe to share the leadership role with Hartley? Is there someone in the academy waiting to step up and take their chance and become the club's next great leader?
Only time will tell, for England, as well as Northampton. We live in hope of unearthing the next great England captain.
The English have a tendency to overstate the importance of captains on the field. In cricket I think we are the only country which selects a captain before it selects a team. At least in cricket a case could be made that the captain on the field has more tactical responsibilities than in any other game.
In football the matter of who captains England rates massive headlines and we agonise about who it should or should not be. Most other countries couldn't give a fig about the captain.
Pretty much the same in rugby really. In the old amateur days a point might possibly be made that the players' commitment levels could vary and somebody had to be there to chivvy them along, but in the professional era players are expected to be self-motivated and tactically aware so the role of a captain is pretty minimal.
A good captain should always look to his senior players for advice. If it's a penalty, does the fly half think he can make the posts? If not, will the hooker be OK to throw in? Can the pack leader get the hard yards from the scrum?
The problem in this area for the Saints is the age of the team - while it's great to have a young, enthusiastic side it does mean you lack the experience and nous to grind out the results.
I think that we tend to confuse the concepts of 'Captaincy' and 'Leadership'.
In the armed forces it is often the case that leadership comes from the NCO or private soldier rather than the Officer who is in theory in Command. Equally a junior officer may be inherently more capable and inspiring than a senior officer. Perhaps then it is all down to leadership quality rather than position or rank ? Was David Beckham anything more than a PR selection as wendyball captain of England when the likes of Tony Adams were in the same team.
I have lost count of the number of Saints players who have led out the side in the last couple of years. I was never that convinced by Bruce as captain on the pitch but as Club Captain he was inspirational. Dylan is a big personality and imho has grown into the role as Saints skipper - just a shame that he is unable to take part at the moment; a thought, does his ban preclude any involvement other than actually playing ?
So whilst Hartley is Saints Captain, we also need leaders on the pitch at the same time. Someone needs to boss the front five, someone else needs to control the back row. By definition the half backs need to be leaders in their own right but a controlling voice from the back line is also important. Therefore Hartley and Wood should be leading the forwards, Dickson and #10 in residence directing the backs with perhaps Foden keeping a watching brief from behind and constantly communicating with those in front of him. Leaders on the field and indeed all players must have the ability to think on their feet and adapt to changing situations without waiting for the next water-boy to come on the pitch. Too often this season we have been guilty of playing by the game-plan and being unable to adapt. Mind you, when the coach only makes big changes when a game is already lost...........!
Interesting questions, but how much of your observations are based on fact and how much is selective memory?
I notice for example you quote the number of great captains after the Johnson rein that played under him. If any one of them had been that good surely there would have only been one? If you looked at their individual records would any of them stand up as great captains?
I notice you also quote Rodber as being a great captain; sure he was a great player, but a great captain? My memory of him when things were going wrong was standing there hands on hips shaking his head. Personally I don’t think Saints have had a great captain since Pat Lam. I think Dylan might go on to be one but he needs to stop shooting himself in the foot every time he gets near.
Great captains need great teams and I am not sure there are too many of them in the English game at the minute, either at club level or international level.
Try to name three great captains for the Lions or most countries and see how far you have to go back.
I don’t think the quality of captains is any better or any worse than at any other time, just there are no great club sides in England at the minute and neither is the international side.
I agree with you ajack that it takes more than just a great captain - you have to have a great side around you. I haven't seen much of Rodber, I concede he was before my time, but he still stands as a leader in my book.
Perhaps it would have been more pertinent of me to focus the discussion on leadership, rather than captaincy? As Mobbs said, there is a great deal of difference between leadership and captaincy and it perhaps leadership across the board that is lacking in the English game. Is that a direct result of the national side? Have the players that have worn the Red Rose over the last 5 or so years not had the right type of exposure or opportunity to lead? Has pressure and the importance of tactics began to stifle players abilities to make their own decisions when on the pitch? When coaches (as has happened in the national team over recent seasons) deliver very strict instructions to their players, if they fail, they may see it as the coaches fault, not theirs, and thus don't learn as much from their mistakes?
Firstly can I thank Daventry Saint for putting together a thoughtful and timely article. I dont agree with everything you say -but thanks again for aserious start to a serious debate.
Lets approach this issue by asking what we mean by Leadership ?
Even a cursory look over Davs contribution and the subsequent posts will reveal that there are a number of different elements that might make up " leadership " Different posters have and will emphasise differnet aspects .
Two however stand out for me - They are " Decison making " - and " inspiration "
Rugby is a game where there are layers of decison making in different parts of the game and consequently decison making is delegated to more than one player.
what i see as a problem here is the growth of formula rugby - what is called by some the game plan - which manifests itself as over prescibed patterns of play and responses to the oppositions plays. It dilutes the decision making role of players.
If you want people to take the right decisions then they have to practice it or have some experience of it - currently I fear that most players have no such experience and the systems and plans laid down by coaches do not offer that experience.
So we the educated fans then comlain when the automatons get it wrong. Perhaps we shold adress our concerns to the system of coaching and match planning that imho is sterlising initiative and decision making .
There was a interview in Brian Ashtons piece inthe paers the other day whereby he was told by the great Gareth Edwards that he G.E sometimes thought coaches didnt so much coach as interfere.
Inspiration - some can do it some cant - there have been many competent leaders who are not necessarily inspiring . In Rugby -probably more than any other sport its the sort of thing that is characterised by " Follow me " Its the guy who encourages and supports rather than the one who points out faults and mistakes.
Ajack mentioned Pat Lam - I stillremember the occasion ( it a happened in front of me )when a player ( cant remember who ) fluffed a high ball and knocked on - Lammy went over to him and putting an arm around his shoulder spoke quietly to him. I dont know what Lammy said but it wasnt angry or critical. That was Leadership and it was inspiring.
one other thing - leaders have to be communicators - it doesnt work at any level if the rest of the team have to guess what is required.
Why is it that we have a dearth of leaders across our squad? Is it just the nature of the types of players we are recruiting or are those players not stepping up and leading the team in the right manner? If so, why?
Btw, very welcome Old Pete - thought we could do with a reasoned and worthy debate on the board, given the amount of threads that descend into bickering, trolling or Eif-bashing around here.
The day I was commissioned as an RAF Officer, our Warrant Officer, who'd seen thousands of young officers graduate, gave us a little pep talk to send us on our way.
"Courage, Leadership, Enthusiasm and Manner" as being the very basic qualities of an officer and leader of men/women. So it goes without saying that the "Captain" has to be a "Leader" but all those who want to be part of a successful team when it comes to winning wars, battles, rugby matches or the inter village tug o war need to demonstrate leadership.
That doesn't mean captaincy by committee as that would be a disaster, but it does mean leadership of one's self, one's part of the team and one's role in the bigger team.
In rugby, by being courageous, by being enthusiastic and by the manner in which one conducts one's self on and off the pitch. By being the fittest, by knowing the Laws inside out, by knowing one's strengths as well as those of your opponent, individually and collectively.
Leading from the front, leading by example, leading with respect but leading by being stronger, quicker and better than the man opposite. Aiming to be the best at everything whilst leading by being humble enough to accept that one will never ever get there but to keep trying.
The players who aim to do these things will be the leaders and as experience grows, become the great leaders. For a few it will be natural, for others it will be hard work and for many, the struggle with their human characteristics of self, ego or temper will win that battle.
As Mobbs said above, in the army, senior NCO's are often the real leaders to whom the "Captain" will turn for advice, inspiration and getting the bleddy job done. On the rugby field it is no different.
To answer the original question, leadership is, to an extent, dying and in my view that is due to professionalism and youth development, whereby many younger players, from early teenage, know nothing other than the game itself and the rigours of training and diet. Perspective is lost and their focus would appear to be on themselves and a narrow team grouping rather than a broader outlook on life and the world. Parents, schools, university can and will make a difference here.
On the plus side, the natural leaders will shine through like a bright light and, if we bag or develop a few at Saints, we'll do well.
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