Springbok rugby and South African rugby in general is coming to the end of an era, and it might be time to think about what the future holds.
2011 will see some of South African rugby’s most famous icons and hero’s retire from the game, or move abroad to close off their careers. For a country with the wealth of talent South Africa has, most people will not worry too much, but they should.
I read a recent publication by a New Zealand university doctor who argued in a 292 page document how New Zealand will fail in this year’s Rugby World Cup hosted in their own backyard. Needless to say it was not well received by his fellow countrymen but the basis of his argument was intriguing.
He argued how success in the Rugby World Cup depends mostly on leadership within the team, and how the absence of their iconic captain Richie McCaw or backline general Dan Carter through possible injury or some other catastrophe can be the difference in lifting the William Webb Ellis trophy, or not.
Apart from the Rugby World Cup, he also asks why there is such a massive void between players who are leaders, and those who follow and why not more players develop into leaders at professional level.
It is an argument which hits close to home for South Africans too.
John Smit, Victor Matfield, Juan Smith and Fourie du Preez will all most likely retire, or in Fourie’s case, move abroad. That is the core leadership group of the Springbok team and like New Zealand, I cannot see any natural or logical replacements for them.
Throughout the last 6 or 7 years, we have seen the importance of each of these individuals in the team, not only from the individual skills they bring to the setup, but how they are the glue that holds everything together. No team can hope to achieve success without these types of individuals, not the Springboks, and neither the All Blacks.
So where, and why, or how did we, and even New Zealand stop producing leaders of this ilk who are quite simply, indispensible to the game of rugby?
It is a question I have often pondered because as many of you will know from my previous columns, I value captaincy over and above insanely talented players, and Dr. David Harris, the author of the paper might have provided the answer I was looking for.
Players like McCaw, Carter, Smit, Matfield, Juan Smith, Du Preez and the likes started their rugby careers when professionalism was in its infancy. Things like rugby academies was still quite new where these guys, although not completely similar to the days of amateur rugby, came through the ‘ranks’ so to speak.
They started their senior careers, very much as juniors in an environment where there was a very distinct hierarchical structure in place where as juniors, they had to fight their way up the ranks to establish and even ‘prove’ themselves or earn the respect of their peers.
They came into an environment where they absorbed the knowledge of rugby icons like Josh Kronfeld, Andrew Mehrtens, Gary Teichman, Mark Andrews, Andre Venter, Joost van der Westhuizen and players of similar status all of whom formed part of the transition from amateur to professional rugby and who were brought up through the structures and traditions of the game in its amateur form, which included the camaraderie uniquely and exclusively experienced in club rugby.
This process of learning from players with different skills and experience in a position of power, authority and respect, equipped these players, and future leaders, with the tools necessary to one day deal with the dynamics involved in leading teams of their own.
Captaincy is more than just wearing an armband. It is the ability to lead from the front, to accept responsibility for each member of the team, to nurture each team member to perform to his potential, to resolve conflicts which will arise from individuals from different backgrounds and cultures and even languages, to plan, to strategise, motivate and pull a team through difficult times on the field, and even off it. He is a person who instigates and manage relationships between all team members and above else, he is respected as the father-figure of the team. He is not only a captain of his team, but the ambassador of the club, province, or country that team represents. In short, the team, and country, is judged on this one man or group of men.
Today, it is not strange to see a baby-face on the field representing a union, franchise or even country. The programs and structures that institutions like rugby academies provide fast-tracks this process and what was once odd, is now becoming the norm.
Players today skip the old-school process of being exposed to a hierarchical structures found in the processes of progressing through club to union level rugby by being immediately forced into an academy environment from school. From being seniors (in schools) they never become juniors again, they are exposed to , and supposed to learn, from individuals on equal levels as themselves who are not only the same age, but have the same levels of experience.
It is not that some of these players are not leaders, or capable of leading, they are just never exposed to the first-hand knowledge and mentorship which will help them develop into great leaders who can deal with the unique dynamics a team sport provides.
The formula for the magic glue that holds a team together never gets passed on. The individual becomes more important than the team, everything becomes I, not us. Pride takes a backseat, respect for the game, jersey and team mates becomes secondary, because if I am the highest paid rugby player of my country at age 22, I don’t need to listen to anyone.
Sounding a bit melodramatic?
I will challenge you to name a captain for each of our major franchises for 2012 that has, or shows the same potential, and will endure the longevity as a leader for their team some of the names above had or showed for their unions, and their country.
I expect very few nominations.