SIR CLIVE WOODWARD: Why the iconic and respected Maro Itoje is my pick for England captain

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The England captaincy for the Six Nations has become an unusually hot topic.

Before the tournament, Eddie Jones announced that Owen Farrell was the man. Then, unfortunately, Farrell got injured and Courtney Lawes was handed the armband. At which point Lawes picked up a concussion and the baton passed to Tom Curry for the opening two games.

This week Lawes is available again so who captains? Curry? Lawes? A.N. Other? And does it matter? Well, yes it does, massively, and I believe strong cases can be made for Maro Itoje and Ellis Genge.

Sir Clive Woodward has backed Maro Itoje (pictured) to be England's next captain

Sir Clive Woodward has backed Maro Itoje (pictured) to be England’s next captain

Among the contenders for the England captaincy include Ellis Genge (left) and Tom Curry

Among the contenders for the England captaincy include Ellis Genge (left) and Tom Curry

All coaches have to get the choice of captain right. It is possibly the most important selection because a great captain matters and gives you an edge.

There are five key criteria which you must consider when choosing your skipper at Test level.

1. AUTOMATIC CHOICE 

Is your captain a first pick in his specialist position? He must be one of the first names on the team sheet and comfortable in his role, so he is not distracted by being outside his comfort zone. 

Curry when playing No 7 fulfils that as do Itoje and Lawes if picked at lock. If playing No 6 they are not automatic picks for me.

I would always start Genge but acknowledge that he is not yet a nailed-on first-choice while the emergence of Marcus Smith at 10 and return of Manu Tuilagi at 12 means Farrell, when he returns, will no longer be an automatic selection in either position.

Itoje (left) is one of just two guaranteed starters for England, alongside prop Genge (right)

Itoje (left) is one of just two guaranteed starters for England, alongside prop Genge (right)

2. TRUST 

Do you trust him implicitly? The captain needs to sing from the same hymnsheet as you – he is your eyes and ears. 

In camp it’s important that players have team meetings without the coach or just talk rugby socially. But you need to know your captain will be on the same page as you, and the winning culture you are building. 

When I selected teams I always told my captain first before the team meeting. I would be interested in their views although the coach has the final call. 

All of that depends on Jones’ relationships with the players and that is very much a personal decision.

Eddie Jones (middle) must be able to trust his captain to do his on-pitch duties well

Eddie Jones (middle) must be able to trust his captain to do his on-pitch duties well

3. IS HE A CLUB CAPTAIN?

Ideally your captain will be skipper with his club, making big decisions every week, getting to know the referees, especially in European games when they will encounter the officials they meet on the international circuit. 

Of the England players I have mentioned only Farrell and Genge tick that box.

4. THINKING CORRECTLY 

Does your captain have a track record of Thinking Correctly Under Pressure, my old friend TCUP! 

Correct decisions need to be made immediately, but thought out in advance so there is no debate. This is what champion teams and captains do. 

When Eddie complained recently of the benefit of hindsight, I railed because you counter that with rehearsing every situation in the team rooms and training pitch with input from everyone, but led by captain and coach.

Itoje (second left) is also able to think correctly under pressure, according to Sir Clive

Itoje (second left) is also able to think correctly under pressure, according to Sir Clive

At all team meetings you should have a whiteboard, scoreboard and clock. And no matter what the topic of debate, you interrupt occasionally and quickly paint a scenario: Two minutes left, six points down, penalty 35 metres out in front of the posts. What do we do? We do not leave the meeting until we are all in 100 per cent agreement.

Over days, weeks, months, years you build up a library of scenarios. Then when it happens during a game the players are armed with the ability to make the correct calls. Foresight not hindsight and led by the captain.

5. RESPECT  

Your team-mates must hold you in high regard on and off the field but respect is a bigger topic than that. 

Referees must respect the captain and I made a point of meeting every referee after our games to get their feedback on the game but especially on how the captain behaved. 

A good captain (left) must be able to gain respect from everyone, including the referee

A good captain (left) must be able to gain respect from everyone, including the referee

There is no mileage in getting on the wrong side of a referee and sometimes you need to take the initiative on that.

When Martin Johnson was skipper he made all the big decisions but I asked Matt Dawson to micro-manage the referee. 

As scrum-half he was entitled to strike up a dialogue and Matt would chat to the referee, getting approval of the way England were doing things.

They are the considerations but where coaches differ is the weighting they give each category. The one that cannot be ignored is ‘automatic choice’ while the category open to the most interpretation is club captaincy.

To me it is essential, but I accept it’s not for many coaches. Will Carling had not skippered at club level when he was made England captain and neither Lawes nor Curry have much captaincy experience. France have gone with Antoine Dupont who does not captain Toulouse. This is where your relationship with the player comes in.

Itoje does not have much experience of captaining at club level, but most Test skippers don't

Itoje does not have much experience of captaining at club level, but most Test skippers don’t

In Premier League football you often see club captains who do not play every week. The armband gets rather tossed around. That is possibly a reflection of a long season but I don’t subscribe to that thinking in Test rugby.

Farrell will not become any less of a great leader if he finds himself on the bench but whoever is leading the team from minute one needs to know they are the main man and have the confidence of everyone. They must own the captaincy for the game.

I’m always worried when teams start talking about leadership groups and co-captains and interchangeable captains. You can only have one leader even if he then cleverly delegates tasks, such as managing the referee.

The levels of trust and respect within the squad are things only the coach will know. TCUP, however, is something we can measure objectively from the stands and is something you can learn. 

Itoje (right) is also able to learn from his mistakes, which can rub off on the rest of the squad

Itoje (right) is also able to learn from his mistakes, which can rub off on the rest of the squad

Lawrence Dallaglio never forgot turning down a kick at goal against Wales at Wembley when we were six points up only for Wales to win the lineout and go upfield and score through Scott Gibbs. Never did he make that mistake again during Wasps’ many great European ties.

So who would I pick? Without knowing the dynamics of relationships I would go for Maro Itoje. Iconic figure, automatic selection at lock, universally respected, intelligent, articulate and likely to learn from mistakes. 

Like any player he is not perfect and has made mistakes: he’s given away too many penalties and has overdone the vocals and flaunting celebrations in the face of opponents when winning a turnover.

What is certain is that England need to settle on their skipper sooner rather than later. Great teams have great ‘go-to” skippers.

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