Ronan O'Gara: The golden qualities of a proper leader and captain

Sam Cane is the newly appointed New Zealand captain. All Blacks coach Ian Foster named the Waikato Chief last week as the man to lead his group through to the 2023 World Cup in France.
Ronan O'Gara: The golden qualities of a proper leader and captain
Newly named All Blacks Captain Sam Cane poses at his home on May 06, 2020 in Hamilton, New Zealand. The All Blacks loose forward and Chiefs Captain was named as the Captain of the All Blacks on 5 May 2020, with Cane succeeding Kieran Read who retired from the All Blacks after the Rugby World Cup in 2019. (Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)
Newly named All Blacks Captain Sam Cane poses at his home on May 06, 2020 in Hamilton, New Zealand. The All Blacks loose forward and Chiefs Captain was named as the Captain of the All Blacks on 5 May 2020, with Cane succeeding Kieran Read who retired from the All Blacks after the Rugby World Cup in 2019. (Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

Sam Cane is the newly appointed New Zealand captain. All Blacks coach Ian Foster named the Waikato Chief last week as the man to lead his group through to the 2023 World Cup in France.

Cane’s 28 so he’s the right age profile, but he must be some leader for Fozzie to appoint him ahead of Sam Whitelock.

Whitelock has an incredible success rate at Test rugby and as Crusaders captain. He has led them to three consecutive Super Rugby titles and from my time there, I can confirm with absolute conviction he is a phenomenal leader.

His capacity to get the vibe of the team at a particular moment, to communicate and express himself in a composed way, was consistently of the highest order. He has spent the larger part of his club and Test career in the same pack as Richie McCaw and Kieran Read. One cannot overstate the impact that would have on an individual as competitive as Whitelock. He was one of the most impressive people I met in New Zealand. We had a perfect combo in Christchurch with Kieran Read as All Black captain and Whitelock as Crusaders captain. It worked a treat.

Picking a team captain is fundamental. And trickier than one might imagine. There are so many component parts to the role and the process is often complicated by different factors: 1) is the most obvious candidate even interested in being captain; 2) is he someone who prefers to focus on his own game, and therefore you are risking a ‘double negative’ (for him and the team) by ‘foisting a leadership position on him?

Some are born leaders, but others build their way into the role. At La Rochelle, we got a nice surprise earlier this year when we handed the captaincy to Kevin Gourdon for the Heineken Cup trip to Glasgow. The former French flanker delivered a superb show of leadership - not just in the game itself but right through the week beforehand. He performed like a man possessed that day. You give someone the opportunity and they can grow into it.

Leading the group in preparation and in fine words is one thing but ultimately the player who acts and delivers good decisions in pressure situations is so much more valuable than the talker.

I am not being pejorative in any way about players who prefer to focus on themselves. Some are better off concentrating all their energies on getting themselves right. That must be respected too.

Personality is the key ingredient in any team situation and before a player can begin to understand the idiosyncrasies of those around him or her, they need to have a full understanding of their own traits, strengths and weaknesses. I was that soldier.

Driving a group, being able to influence others without even knowing you are doing it is leadership.

Leaders need to have a point of view but be empathetic too. For the players and management, it’s ‘who in this dressing room represents us the best? Who has impeccable standards and is consistently respecting the club’s values? Who will handle the difficult moments best? Can our leader drive his message, motivate his team-mates and deliver a high performance 80 minutes at the same time? Is he so inspiring from training paddock to the heat of battle that those around him instinctively up their game?

That’s a strong, sound basis from which to start the selection process of captain.

Staff must be perceptive in all these things. They must be able to separate the shouters from the doers. Someone who froths at the mouth and melts when the heat is white won’t outlast an egg- timer. The idea of the players selecting their own captain (by secret vote, worse) is antiquated and dangerous. Seriously, some players do not have the maturity to understand the fundamental importance of a strong captain.

I know what I am talking about here. I’ve been gifted with an incredible array of captains throughout a playing career. Paulie, Jim Williams, Axel, Gaillimh, Drico, Woody. Then there was Dallaglio and Martin Johnson with the Lions.

When we stop and look at the leaders and captains in Irish and Munster rugby over an extended period, it’s enough to make the hairs on your neck stand to attention. World class.

The impact each made, in their own way, has left very positive traces in me. I carry their traits daily.

From Gallimh’s mesmeric storytelling to Drico grabbing games by the scruff of the neck to Paulie’s inspiration. He passed the acid test every time: If you were in that dressing room, you’d leave it wanting to do a job for him. One would have to be dead inside not to take big learnings from them all. Axel’s ability to park emotion and play with a clear head in a calm and composed manner was staggeringly good.

Crucially, all of the above got big buy-in from his group. They were natural leaders, each in their distinct way. And they didn’t have to be elder statesmen to achieve that pre-eminent status.

Experience doesn’t always equate to leadership. Take the decisions of southern hemisphere coaches who arrived in Munster without knowing too much in terms of the lay of the land. They all presumed that seniority would equate to leadership. It doesn’t.

Some people, however experienced, are not suited to leadership roles.

The creation of leadership groups within a squad is a template most teams now abide by, but the selection of the captain is the critical piece of the jigsaw. You get that decision wrong and it will frustrate and retard progress every day of the week, in every part of the game. I look at the best captains - and the best leaders. They are always open to learning and always thinking of what is best for the group. They are always walking that fine line between assuredness and arrogance.

If you get all those things in a leader, then you’ve got gold

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