A captain is only as good as his team, or so the old adage suggests.
Me? I think even the best crew would do well not to be led by a bloke who makes suspect decisions or sends a flare high into the sky at the first sign of trouble.
A good skipper is hugely important to a side.
I’ve seen it enough as a referee over the years to appreciate how much leadership matters.
Nor does the job end when the final whistle sounds. The best captains also set the tone off the field as well, by setting a good example to those around them, by being courteous, by speaking well and generally being a true professional 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
READ MORE: Alun Wyn Jones pens his memoirs and reveals what makes his skin crawl
I thought I’d pick this as a theme this week as it coincides with the publication of Alun Wyn Jones’ autobiography. All of us know what an immense skipper Alun Wyn has been over the years, but more of that later.
Someone asked me who my top five captains were in the Test arena.
I am not going to include any Welsh players on my list because I haven’t refereed them in international matches. For the best Wales skippers I have come across, though, I will name them in a separate bit at the end.
Anyway, these are my top Test skippers ranked, Welshmen aside.
5. Chris Robshaw (England)
Some people will be surprised at this one to start off.
After all, Robshaw was widely criticised towards the end of his time as England captain and particularly after the game with Wales at Twickenham, when he made the call to go for the corner instead of the posts. It didn’t come off and his team lost 28-25, leaving them on the way to an early exit from their own World Cup.
I just think he deserves better than to be remembered for one decision.
People will remember me closing down a query from him about a call I had made by raising an eyebrow and saying “Christopher!” to him with a rising intonation.
His response said much for him. “Sorry, sir,” he replied.
Respect for the officials, so important in this great game of ours, was there and present on every other occasion I refereed him.
Robshaw knew how to act on a rugby pitch and he was a gent in everything he did.
His misfortune was perhaps to be leading England during a difficult time, but he always gave everything for the cause, encouraging others to follow suit, and he was a nice guy off the pitch.
When I was fortunate enough to pick up an award for services to the LGBT community in 2017, he came along to make the presentation and said a few words. He didn’t have to do that.
A really top bloke, then, and a much, much better captain than many might contend.
4. Jean de Villiers (South Africa)
When he led South Africa against New Zealand in 2013, there was a mix-up involving a substitution. Andrew Hore came off, but the All Blacks’ had mixed up the name of the hooking replacement, bringing on Dane Coles rather than Keven Mealamu as the official team-sheet stated.
It could have sparked a right old row and spoiled what had been a classic Test match.
But amid the confusion, de Villiers showed his quality. His 24-carat quality. Instead of bickering and adding to the fuss, he stepped forward to say: “Look, mistakes happen. Let’s get on with the game and sort anything else out later if it needs to be sorted out.”
I was blown away by such sportsmanship and leadership.
That single episode underlined to me that this was not only a great rugby player but also a great leader and a great man.
Whenever I came across him on the field, he impressed me.
3. Richie McCaw (New Zealand)
He’s right up on any list of rugby’s greatest players.
Maybe he will be at the top for many people.
New Zealand won something like nine out of every 10 games in which he led them, but the mark of Richie McCaw was how he conducted himself when the All Blacks lost.
Pick your greatest Wales XV now
I refereed them in a couple of games when they had their colours lowered by South Africa. There were never any complaints to the press, never any moaning behind the scenes.
He was hugely respectful whatever the outcome — challenging during the game, but always in an appropriate way.
And, of course, he put his body on the line for his side. He wasn’t just a do-as-I-say leader. He led by his deeds as well.
Quite brilliant, really.
2. Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell (Ireland)
I’m classing this as a joint-ticket as whenever I seemed to ref Ireland in their day O’Driscoll was captain and O’Connell was vice-skipper.
O’Driscoll actually used to tell me if there were issues with the forwards then I should chat to O’Connell.
I found them excellent to deal with.
O’Driscoll was a complete gentleman, knowledgeable but also fully accepting that a referee has a job to do, and much the same went for O’Connell.
In 2013 Ireland played New Zealand and there was a lot riding on it, particularly for O’Driscoll, with the match probably being his last chance to beat the All Blacks ahead of his retirement as a player.
It looked like being O’Connell’s last opportunity as well.
Ireland played superbly that day, taking it to New Zealand and looking set to post a famous win. But, as is always the case, the All Blacks didn’t go away. They kept playing until the very end and got back to 22-22 with a conversion to take in the final seconds. Aaron Cruden missed but Ireland had started to run at him before he attempted the shot and I ordered a retake, which he succeeded with to give the Kiwis victory by two points.
The pain for Ireland!
It must have been agony for the whole team and especially for O’Driscoll and O’Connell, considering where they were in their careers.
But, again, they took defeat with wonderful grace, and that matters. Captaincy isn’t just about acting well in victory; it’s about doing and saying the right things in defeat, too.
Paul did the post-match speech because Brian was unable to for some reason, and he talked up New Zealand for the way they hit back and he also went out of his way to say Ireland couldn’t blame the officials.
I thought that showed the stature of the individual.
Paul didn’t search for a scapegoat.
He took the loss as a defeat should be taken.
He and O’Driscoll were high-class leaders.
1. Thierry Dusautoir (France)
My choice as the best skipper I encountered may raise a few eyebrows, but what a captain Dusautoir was. He unfailingly put his body on the line throughout his career — recall the 38 tackles he made when France knocked the All Blacks out of the 2007 World Cup — led by example and understood the game very well.
Also, he was exemplary in the way he conducted himself.
There were never any complaints from him over refereeing, not even when borderline decisions went against France. When his team were crushed 62-13 by New Zealand during the 2015 World Cup, he wasn’t tempted to blame anyone.
He acted as a true leader should act.
Off the pitch he set a high standard as well.
A great captain and a great man, then.
And the top three Welsh captains
Those would be Alun Wyn Jones, Ryan Jones and Sam Warburton, in no particular order. All of them had different styles, with Sam, in particular, a skipper who picked his moments when it came to interacting with the referee.
Potentially, referees listened more that way as they might have reasoned that Sam wasn’t taking issue for the sake of it.
Like Richie McCaw, Alun Wyn wasn’t afraid to challenge you, while Ryan would also speak up.
But all three were superbly respectful, on and off the field, and they had respect back.
They are the top three Welsh captains I oversaw.
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