SSA Blog: To Captain the Pride

Lions selection is always a hot topic. This year’s entire RBS 6 Nations was played under the shadow of the Lions tour to New Zealand. Every game (involving the home nations) was analysed within the context of who had done enough or otherwise to earn a place on the aeroplane to Auckland.

But perhaps the most intriguing selection topic was that of the captain. The previous captain Sam Warburton had been replaced at national level by Alun Wyn Jones. England’s highly successful leader Dylan Hartley was facing a fight for selection at hooker from, amongst others, Rory Best, who’s Ireland side had defeated New Zealand and England in major tests of his leadership.

As we now know, Warren Gatland has put his faith in Sam Warburton. Warburton becomes only the second player to lead the Lions twice. But with his form suffering while captaining Wales earlier in the year and his open admission that he didn’t feel “comfortable” with captaincy prior to the 6 Nations, why has Gatland decided Sam Warburton is his ‘go to’ guy for the biggest role in northern hemisphere rugby?

The Lions is a unique sporting institution, the captain is therefore unlike any other. Fans and media often hype the role into some form of mythical Anglo-Celtic worrier spirit and other such battle based analogies when discussing what they want from a captain. But in the calculated, professional world of elite sport, there is much more to it.

Unsurprisingly the scientific literature believes leadership and effective captaincy can have a marked impact upon performance. However, the role of a captain, its demands and the attributes required to be effective have received very limited scientific investigation. In one of the most comprehensive studies examining captaincy, Fransen and his team (2016) surveyed over 4,000 sports people. They highlighted four broad leadership functions relating to captaincy. Tactical, motivational, social (team spirit) and external (dealing with the media etc). This all feels very straight forward, the problem they found was that almost half of their surveyed cohort felt their captain didn’t fulfil any of these fundamental functions, so by implication, they wouldn’t support enhanced performance.         

While Fransen et al, (2016) provides a good platform, rugby presents a very specific captaincy test. It isn’t like football and other team sports, as the captain’s role is more significant. Recognising this, Cotterill and Cheetham (2016) looked specifically at the experiences of elite rugby captains. They highlighted 9 ‘super-ordinate’ themes and within those, 55 ‘subordinate’ themes following extensive interviews with professional club and in some cases ex-international captains.

Cotterill and Cheetham’s research shows the vast responsibility and expectation associated with captaincy in modern rugby. The diversity of these themes, from conflict resolution and motivator through to on pitch decision maker and player liaison officer, are a far cry from the Warrior type picture often painted. But the Lions isn’t normal rugby, it’s not club rugby, it isn’t even International rugby. The Lions represents a different challenge altogether. And that is perhaps the most compelling reason why Gatland trusts Sam Warburton to lead the 2017 side both on and off the field.

In interviews regarding his decision, Warren Gatland made very little, if any, reference to the traditional qualities associated with captaincy. Many of the other candidates for the role have been praised for their passion, described as natural leaders, motivators with an ability to galvanise and lead a team. Instead, Gatland has focused on the ability to manage game situations and in particular communicate effectively with the referee. In Warburton, Gatland has prioritised the softer elements of captaincy. A self-assured team player, who showed maturity prior to and during the 6 nations when his own form had dropped and the Welsh captaincy was removed.

Cotterill and Cheetham conclude their 2016 paper by suggesting the need for further clarity regarding the role of the captain and the skills required. They imply traditional views surrounding what makes a great captain need to be challenged. The Lions tour will be brutal, hard hitting, relentless rugby. The skill levels, determination, drive and motivation among the touring party are unquestionable. With this in mind, the experience, calmness and game management that Sam Warburton brings as captain would appear to be the right choice. At this level, the captain is surrounded by Lions with big hearts ready for the big stage. To win the series the captain doesn’t need to be the best Lion…

He needs to get the best from his Pride.