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.

Does Joe Marler have a Miracle Milkman?

The 2017 RBS 6 Nations is around the corner. England will go into the tournament as favourites but there can be no doubt about the big story during the build-up. Its Joe Marler’s miracle come back from a broken leg, and how? Milk apparently…….

With Mako Vunipola injured, Marler had been the obvious choice to start at Loosehead. However, after picking up what he thought was a calf strain against Worcester in a game at the start of the year and subsequently being unable to recover, he was diagnosed with a stress fracture.

It is worth noting that although still a fracture, a stress fracture is a reasonably common condition accounting for roughly 10% of sports injuries (Graham et al, 2015). General prognosis would see athletes making a return in four to six weeks, rather than the months associated with a full fracture.

If the fracture had been diagnosed following the Worcester game, he would have had 5 weeks until running out at Twickenham this weekend, putting his recovery in line with the general prognosis. But Marler has admitted he continued to train and once the problem was diagnosed, just over a week later, the medical team were not expecting him to return until the middle of February. His recovery is, therefore, well ahead of schedule and no doubt welcome to Eddie Jones and the rest of the England team.

But did his well-publicised milk consumption really assist this rapid comeback?

Bone development happens when we are young. The key is to build up as much bone mass as possible via a mixture of calcium ingestion and physical activity (other factors play a role but are beyond the scope of this article). Rapid bone mass development takes place during adolescence, it’s at this point that calcium intake requirements are at their maximum, between 1000 and 1500 mg per day (Soliman et al, 2016).  Following this ‘growth phase’ and into young adulthood the body moves to maintain bone density, this is obtained by ensuring adequate calcium, other vitamins and minerals and physical activity, particularly weight bearing. From this point on, calcium is used to inhibit any bone loss that is typically associated with aging.

Stress fractures can be treated in a number of ways, from rest through to Ultrasound therapy. Marler made reference to potentially using a hyperbaric chamber, made famous by David Beckham’s metatarsal. A small study by Stewart and his team in the USA back in 2005 even showed that treatment with Biophosphonates could return athletes to training within a week.

Certainly, during a stress fracture injury period, adequate calcium levels would be important to ensure the bone doesn’t suffer any density loss. Not only that, to limit any drop in lean body mass, it would be advisable to ensure a high level of protein intake (Wall et al, 2015). To that end milk would seem a sensible option. However we have not been able to find any evidence to suggest a high calcium intake via milk, full fat or otherwise, supports rapid bone recovery.

Depressingly for the headline writers I think this one comes down to quality injury management. In Phil Pask, England has one of the most experienced rugby physiotherapists in the world. He has worked within the England system for 20 years and also supported a number of Lion’s tours. Marler himself thanked Pask for the work he had put in when describing how he had “rehabbed the crap out of it”. Any physio or team doctor will tell you that player ‘buy in’ and compliance to the process is the most important part of rehabilitation. It seems rather than any mystery healing powers in a bottle of gold top, Joe Marler simply bought into the process and did everything his expert medical team asked of him.

Joe’s Mum told him when he was a boy that drinking milk was important and back then as his bones were developing she was exactly right. It seems she may also have told him to listen to people trying to help him. In this case that person was Phil Pask. He deserves plenty of credit for getting Marler fit and ready for Saturday.

I am sure Joe's Milkman is a nice guy, but he can't take the credit for this one.......