Wanted: leader

IN THE Grand Slam match of 1990, Scotland were awarded a penalty just inside the England half and everyone expected the home team to kick to touch. Instead Gary Armstrong tapped the ball and passed it to Finlay Calder, who without hesitating charged head first into the waiting England pack where he hit a brick wall.

There was just the briefest of moments, half a heartbeat, when home fans feared for his very being until the rest of the Scotland pack arrived and blew the English bodies out of the way. Calder emerged from the breakdown several inches shorter than he went into it.

It was a superb example of leadership in action, raw and instinctive, a charge into the heart of the enemy, a clarion call to arms without a word spoken… and Calder wasn't even captain of the team.

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That Scotland Grand Slam team boasted both a former Lions captain in their midst (Calder) and a future one in Gavin Hastings, in addition to the man who led the side in that slow, heart-stopping march on to the field, David Sole – another leader of men. He has since admitted that the success of the team was down to the fact that four or five players could have done as good a job as he did, with John Jeffrey, Gary Armstrong, Hastings and Calder being the most obvious examples in a team full of leaders. It is no coincidence that Ireland's first Grand Slam side in 61 years also contained a past Lions captain in Brian O'Driscoll and a future one in Paul O'Connell.

The position of leader has always been important and is even more so now, with ever-increasing stakes piled high on rugby's Test match table. While the sport has not quite gone the cricket route, picking the leader first and constructing a team around him, it's a close run thing. Many believe that Springboks skipper John Smit is there for his peerless leadership skills because there is little doubt that South Africa have better tight head props at their beck and call. There may not be widespread agreement on much of modern rugby right now but no one doubts the importance of on-field leadership.

"Finlay was very good at getting the best out of his players," says Andy Robinson about the man who kept him out of the 1989 Lions Test team. "It's important to me that a captain needs to be someone who can translate the vision of the game we want to play, he needs the respect of his peers and he must have 'followship'." The coach may just have invented a new word but it isn't difficult to understand what it means.

"The captain must take the players out of their comfort zone and lead from the front," Robinson continues. "There are several different components of leadership and making someone captain and then expecting them to win the game for Scotland, as happened with Jason White, simply isn't the way to do it. We need every player stepping up. We must empower the players to perform."

Player empowerment is not new but it is apt because at winning clubs around the world it is the players who run the show. Pieter de Villiers was mocked when he got the Springboks job because he was seen as weak, with a cartel of senior players dictating tactics. A series win over the Lions and a Tri-Nations triumph later, player power is now recognised as a strength. Ian McGeechan notes in his recent autobiography that when a coach can stand silent on the sidelines while his players take their own training session, he is able to reflect on a job well done.

In the past, captains had to do everything from tossing the coin to washing the shirts but the days when the captain was a lone leader are long gone. Scotland will have a four-man "leadership group" including the captain and a vice-captain backed up by two other senior players. Robinson will also appoint captains for both attack and defence in addition to a lineout boss and a scrummage leader, who may or may not be part of the original four-man group. In short, everyone needs to be a leader in their field.

Yet for all that, only one man will lead Scotland on to Murrayfield in two weeks' time and Richard Cox, a psychologist who specialises in sport, has identified six key components that Robinson will be looking for as he mulls over the appointment of a captain.

1 – Self-belief: a leader must believe in his own abilities.

2 – Optimism.

3 – Courage.

4 – Thorough preparation, with the emphasis on thorough.

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5 – Teamwork: a leader must stand above – but still be integral to – the team.

6 – Communications skills.

This latter is the one that Cox says most often flummoxes Scots involved in top class sport and he even has a theory that it originates in the classroom where pupils are rarely encouraged to challenge the teacher's authority, although he cheerfully admits to owning no real empirical evidence to back it up.

Cox is worth listening to because he used to work with the national rugby squad back in the 1990s and he has been brought back on board by Robinson, who referred to him last week as a member of the management team. In recent years, the psychologist has been largely peripheral to the Scotland squad, helping out only on odd occasions with individual players rather than the team as a whole.

Robinson refers to leadership as a "key development we need to find" so the question remains whether he will find the leaders he needs within the current group of players.

"It's too early to say," is Cox's response. "I think we'll be in a better position to judge that after the team has played against Fiji, Australia and Argentina. You look at the players and judge whether you would follow one of them but that is not the important issue at stake here. What matters is whether the other players will follow whoever is captain and we just don't know right now."

It was a decade ago when Armstrong, Andy Nicol and Bryan Redpath fought over the scrum-half slot and the captaincy. In a similar fashion, whichever of his three scrum-halves – Mike Blair, Chris Cusiter and Rory Lawson – Robinson chooses to start against Fiji will probably be handed the captaincy along with the No.9 shirt.

Writing about his Scotland swansong in 2003, McGeechan noted: "We (Scotland] missed the hard men who had given us authority back in 1990; we did not seem to be developing players of authority." It is up to the senior players in Robinson's squad to prove him wrong.