The Captain and their role in modern rugby

As International Rugby begins to grab the attention of the sporting public, Sport Science Agency takes a look at perhaps the most under developed research/support areas of modern professional sport, the role of the Captain.

Richie McCaw

In the UK modern sport science is entering its 5th decade. In that time, we have moved from noughts and crosses game analysis to motion capture GPS or high frequency radio wave technology. Position specific play and training regimes, personalised nutrition plans, psychological support and the latest breathable, tackle resistant kit surround the professional game. As a sport, Rugby Union has embraced sport science and has been willing to learn from other major contact sports.

As science has helped players have become fitter, stronger and increasingly game intelligent, the lack of research conducted into the role, responsibility, attributes and the process of becoming a successful captain is baffling.

A modern captain must be a leader, but they can’t just lead by being a good player. On the pitch tactical decisions need to be made, they must interact with the referee and deliver technical messages to the team. All this while motivating or calming players. To many its like being an on-pitch manager, being able to react and even foresee incidents positive or negative that effect the game’s outcome.

Off the pitch captains are supposed to embody the essence of the club or team, a role model to fans and players. They are expected to answer media questions regarding decisions and tactics that in other sports would be the topic for managers. In training, they act as a go between regarding players and coaching staff, while setting the standards that other players must aspire too. I am sure if you took 5 minutes you could think of various other roles, pressures and distractions that captains have to fulfil.

Stewart Cotterall and Richard Cheetham recognised the void in understanding regarding this complex sporting role and have begun to research how broad and challenging it is. They found 9 key themes that kept arising when talking to current or previous professional Rugby captains. These were: -

Role – The broad range of tasks captains are expected to fulfil, which varies across the different groups within a professional club, from players, coaches, staff, media and fans.

Skill – The day to day skills that are required to manage the role both on and off the pitch.

Requirements – The external areas needed to support good captaincy, such as player, coach and staff support.

Challenges – The initial transition of becoming a captain and lack of support or understanding of the role, through to media and player relationships. 

The Coach – The relationship with and coaching ethos of the coaching and coaching team

Development – How do captains develop as players and leaders? how do they increase the skills needed to fulfil the role?

Experience – Both your own and others that can help develop and recognise the needs of various situations.

Context – Club, team and personal aspirations which often change.

Approach – Pulling together experience and context via a captain’s personality.

Challenges seem to come from all angles, particularly when players step up to become a new captain or captain at a new level. As in many groups, problems regarding leadership structures develop during initial phases. This is often when an inexperienced captain needs the most support. But no structure, understanding or specific research exists which leads to a lack of formal understanding of the role and therefore unrealistic expectations among players, coaches, management and fans are made of captains. Ultimately they are thrown into a sink or swim situation, which, as with so much in sport, is judged via factors outside of their control.

The time for this high-profile sporting position to become defined and supported is surely here. Rugby needs to create a system that sees young players developed into future leaders both on and off the pitch. Perhaps it can develop a system that shares roles among a senior leadership team, which would in itself provide support and a natural succession plan. One thing is for sure, Rugby should be looking at the psychological traits of its captains so it can begin to identify who and how players can fulfil this critical role.