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FEATURE Mick Cleary: 'An England captain has to be more than a mere figurehead'

Mick Cleary: 'An England captain has to be more than a mere figurehead'
4 months ago

Even the best of captains don’t always get it right. Will Carling (along with a few of those other meddlesome backs) took it upon themselves in the 1991 World Cup final to deviate from England’s tried-and-tested stick-it-up-the-jumper approach in the tournament to try something a little friskier and it cost them dear as the gnarled forward pack was wont to remind them in later years. Lawrence Dallaglio? He opted  for the lineout rather than take the three points on offer in the 1999 Grand Slam game against Wales at Wembley. The lineout mis-fired and Scott Gibbs struck. Chris Robshaw, also against Wales? Yeah, boob-boob.  Of course, these three fine men also did plenty that was right and proper and productive as England captains with plenty of Grand Slams to their name and trophies to polish.

But, it ain’t easy. As Jamie George is about to find out. The Team Choice, the People’s Captain, with not a bad bone in his body and anyone set against him. George has a lot going for him. But popularity only takes you so far, to first whistle in Rome in all probability. And there is no formula to follow, no template that guarantees success. The most important thing for George is that he is himself, that he has confidence in who he is and what he brings to any situation. No-one doubts that he will have an impact on his teammates, that he will be firm and direct when needs be but that he will encourage and support the less experienced ones.

But his most important interaction will come with the man who anointed him in the first place – Steve Borthwick. This is the pivotal relationship and could shape just how we judge England by the end of this championship. There was grudging respect for what England achieved at the World Cup, and rightly so. They had been a basket case in the months preceding, clunky and unconvincing on so many levels. Even at the tournament itself it was hard to warm to them as they slogged through their group and somehow saw off the challenge of Fiji in the quarter-finals. Yes, they came within a gnat’s whisker of toppling the eventual champions, South Africa, but even then there were few who would have backed them to go all the way. You might acknowledge where they got to but it was nigh on impossible to love them.

Jamie George
The relationship between Jamie George and Steve Borthwick will be key to England’s success (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

And now? George has already pledged himself to reconnecting with the Twickenham crowd. Weird as it might sound given the support that has rained down from those stands right back to the Carline era and beyond, that’s a tricky mission. Eddie Jones left behind a sour, toxic air. The Australian became increasingly rancorous. His teams reflected it and the rot set in. Owen Farrell became the butt of that angst and anger, horribly so.

George knows full well what might come his way although you sense that the mood has changed. And England must change, too. And that objective sits squarely on George’s shoulders. Even in this age of joy-stick control by coaches with all their traffic lights and water-carrier messaging, a captain has the responsibility to resist those instructions if he thinks fit. That is what the best captains have always done be it a Nick Farr-Jones with Bob Dwyer, a Francois Pienaar or John Eales, or Martin Johnson who closed the circle in the full-time huddle as Clive Woodward approached on that famous night in Sydney. Woodward always knew his place, listening to his players.

England have been cut a lot of slack by their supporters since Borthwick over a year ago, recognising the hospital pass he received from the RFU when Jones was sacked. It is time for England to move on.

So when George approaches Borthwick and says that his team want to play with more width and joy and self-expression, to do as Ireland and France and Scotland have managed to do in recent years and bring a home crowd to their feet, then how will the head coach react? George cannot be a passive recipient. He has to drive change if change is what is desired.

It is most certainly needed. England have been cut a lot of slack by their supporters since Borthwick over a year ago, recognising the hospital pass he received from the RFU when Jones was sacked. It is time for England to move on. If they persist with their kick-and-chase tactics, then pretty soon those RFU coffers will be hit by dwindling interest. England have to bring more zip and snap and forthrightness to their approach.

Jamie George Owen Farrell
George will be sure to take advice from his close friend Owen Farrell but the two are different characters (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

George himself appears to be on that wavelength. It won’t be easy to persuade the Borthwick mindset towards a more enterprising outlook. But that is the captain’s lot. In many ways, you hope that is why Borthwick opted for such a senior pair of hands to take over the armband. The head coach wants to be challenged. Hence Felix Jones on the coaching roster. And Andrew Strawbridge. And George.

There was a fascinating column by Courtey Lawes in The Times on George’s appointment. His former Red Rose teammate reckoned that George was a better fit for this semi-transitional era for England with several new or newish individuals to get bedded in, the Saracens’ hooker being more of an easily-approachable personality than his predecessor, Owen Farrell. That is an observation, not a criticism for the popularity of Farrell among his peers is not to be doubted. George is simply more open, more innately accessible.

There is a minimum goal for England of three wins in the championship. Their win record at Twickenham since 2021 stands at only 50%. That they have not managed more than one try bonus point in the last four editions of the championship tells its own story.

And he knows above all else that he has to bring his A-game to both the training field as well as the pitch itself. He did enough bum-splintering shifts on the bench behind Dylan Hartley to know that his own form has to be tip-top if he is maintain the respect of the squad and stay ahead of the likes of his own Saracens’ teammate, Theo Dan. George also served his time in the ranks at the club behind John Smit and Schalk Brits.

There is a minimum goal for England of three wins in the championship, a notch up from what they have managed for the last three years. Their win record at Twickenham since 2021 stands at only 50%. That they have not managed more than one try bonus point in the last four editions of the championship tells its own story.

Jamie George
George knows there is work to do with the England fanbase and wants to put smiles back on faces (Photo by Adam Pretty – Getty Images)

Is it to much to expect George to be able to help right this deficiency? No, it isn’t. An England captain has to be more than a mere figurehead. Look at what Ben Stokes has managed to instil in his team, a sense of self-belief, ease-of-being and a boldness that brings its own reward. Of course the England cricket set-up is a coach-captain double-act in tandem with Brendon McCullum. George has the lead role for the rugby team. If he gets Borthwick to follow then it could be an exhilarating ride. Jamie George is just the man for the job.

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