Lions in need of new Nelson

Times Column 11/09/04

Fifty-one thousand people turned out at Twickenham last Saturday to swing a bottle at the launch of the Zurich Premiership 2004/5.  A new campaign begins, and in rugby, the winter season in hostile weather most closely resembles a naval campaign. From about the time of the Battle of Trafalgar, and not only because in Europe the French are still the biggest obstacle.

All the clubs know where they plan to go, with a fair wind, and at every level of the game from Premiership to South Lancs/Cheshire 4, everyone has a chance at glory. The professionals get the treasure.  The rest make do with rum and sea-shanties, but as in those Master and Commander Men o’ War, the crew each club has on board now will take their chances, increasingly ragged and bruised, until they eventually limp into the port of next May. It’s hard to recruit in mid ocean, especially when respecting the salary cap.  

What stands in the way of success? The Fates, who famously have no feelings and are blind: the referees, of course. Meanwhile, the coaches have a scheme for every eventuality, but it’ll be six months before we find out who are the Horatio Nelsons, the Admiral Warren Gatlands, and who the crazy Ahabs.

Obviously, it’s not like a sea voyage in every respect.  Rugby players get more lucozade.  And ships need captains. During the last fortnight, Club England has managed to lose both its admiral and its captain. The flagship is drifting, haunted by echoes on the wind of an exotic, already half-forgotten tongue: ‘business principles’, ‘judge me’, ‘the guys,’. 

Earlier than usual, leadership is an issue.  The England vacancy at captain seems simple enough, as Jonny’s omnipotence should by definition include captaincy.  Perhaps he can also be asked his opinion on the coach. 

It’s Woodward’s choice of Lions captain that now becomes the more intriguing appointment, as a measure of his ability to learn from mistakes. While with England, he twice appointed Lawrence Dallaglio. Both times it ended in tears, most recently with the man in the captain’s hat first off the listing ship. 

On the field, Dallaglio led from the front.  Unfortunately, he often seemed confused about where he was going. In this style of leadership (it might be called the Atherton method), there’s no doubting the grit and hardness of the individual. This type of captain is at his best in a losing cause, when no difficult or imaginative decision needs to be taken, and leading means simply bearing the brunt.  Which Dallaglio did magnificently this summer in the Southern hemisphere. 

What he and Woodward seem to have in common is a powerful idea of how they’d like to appear to others.  Early in his England career, Dallaglio developed an off-the-ball strut which made it look as if he had a barrel under each arm, and one between his legs.  Richard Hill also has impressive muscles, but they never seemed to stop him walking normally. 

Dallaglio’s hard-man posturing, like Woodward’s pose as the self-styled ‘Crazy Professor’, can be tremendously productive. It gives them both an ideal for which to aim.  But on the pitch, way out at sea, under intense pressure, postures and ideals become insufficient. Beyond the pretence there’s always something stronger: the thing in itself.

Step forward Martin Johnson. The thing. Let’s call his leadership the Nelson method.   For this kind of rare and straight-forward leader, performing for the captain means benefiting the team. The captain clearly has no self-serving motive.  He then inspires his men to take the next, daring step: the achievement of the team affects the well-being of the individual soul. It determines self-esteem, pride, and the collective satisfaction known as morale.

With Woodward now revealed as a man so conflicted he muddles his backgrounds and his foregrounds, it seems increasingly clear that along with an exceptional group of players, captain Johnson was his greatest stroke of luck. It augurs well for the Lions to have such a lucky coach, but it’s worth remembering that Johnson wasn’t Woodward’s preferred choice. 

After Dallaglio’s first resignation, the risk-taker Woodward was forced into a risk-free zone.   Johnson had already proved himself as captain of the 97 Lions, a job for which he was selected by Ian McGeechan. Now that McGeechan has been pencilled in to help with the 2005 tour, perhaps Woodward should delegate to his expert the task of selecting the captain.

The rest of the fleet, meanwhile, on less exalted missions than the conquest of New Zealand, are already under sail.