From Captain Sensible to Captain Invisible

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The Independent Online
British sport has been blessed with a succession of team captains whose leadership on the field of play has been an inspiration. We have, on the other hand, suffered many captains who possessed not the slightest idea of how to lead or in what direction. Countless others have had a vague notion about their duties and responsibilities but not a vestige of ability or authority with which to discharge them. And a distressing number have comfortably carried the aura of command but, after leading out the team and taking part in the toss-up, have breathed a sigh of relief that the hard part was over.

What we had never experienced before in the 150 or so years that we have been organising games in Britain is a captain who doesn't know who he is.

Our thanks for sharing this phenomenon with us go to the troubled game of rugby union. As of last Wednesday the England team has a freshly appointed captain but neither he, his fellow players, the Rugby Football Union nor the nation at large knows his identity. Furthermore, his name will remain a closely kept secret until peace descends upon the game's ruling forces.

Jack Rowell, the England coach, is the man who claims responsibility for this unprecedented state of anonymity. When the 45-strong England squad gathered for training at Bisham Abbey last week, Rowell announced that he and his assistants, Mike Slemen and Les Cusworth, had chosen the player to succeed Will Carling as captain but had yet to tell him or get their decision approved by the RFU.

He said: "Only the management team know his identity. I feel it would be invidious to appoint this man at the moment . . . he may possibly get caught up in some crossfire and that would not do English rugby any good."

Rowell is hoping that the conflict between the English Professional Rugby Union Clubs and the RFU will soon be resolved and that the game will return to whatever passes as normality these days. Like the rest of us, however, he might have to brace himself for the farce to dribble on interminably.

Peace could prove elusive even until 23 November when England play Italy at Twickenham. With Rowell's conditions for naming his captain still not fulfilled, we would then face the intriguing experience of a team being led by an unidentified skipper. This will present a unique opportunity for them to experiment with a democratic approach to on-field team government.

The entire 15 could go up to the centre circle for the pre-match formalities and after they'd all shaken hands with the Italian captain, the referee and the linesmen and patted the mascot on the head we could then witness the historic moment of sport's first toss-up being decided on a majority heads-or-tails vote.

The fact that each player would have, in varying degrees, the feeling that he is the man Rowell has privately earmarked might have a profound affect on their performances. And there could well be moments when a clenched fist or a stamping boot would be suddenly halted halfway to their target by the thought: "I shouldn't be doing this. I might be England's captain."

That Rowell's decision should be prey to such tomfoolery suggests that it was not produced by deep thinking. The situation in the game is so grotesque that one can forgive someone in his position trying carefully to guide his charges through the minefield. But he is wrong to protect whoever he is shielding in this quaint way.

One of the problems in English rugby at the moment is that it has more mouthpieces than the wind section of the London Philharmonic. The situation needs a strong and more objective voice to establish some order and coherence in the argument and from where better should it come than the players?

Rowell is fortunate that he has so many good men from whom to choose. Lawrence Dallaglio of Wasps is the outstanding candidate but there are genuine claims to be made for Phil de Glanville of Bath, Tim Rodber of Northampton and Jason Leonard of Harlequins. Each is captain of his club and of the mettle the job demands but it must be doubted if any of them matches the man being replaced.

When Will Carling brought his long spell of captaincy to an end last season, it seemed a sensible decision. He had held the job as long as anyone could remember and, with a new dawn rising, it was an appropriate time to make way. Besides, the "old farts" had never forgiven him so why shouldn't he just concentrate on rugby and let them get on with it.

"Old fart" is an admonishment that has gathered profundity with each passing day. Carling, only 30, remains the personification of an England captain and the man selected to replace him will be uncomfortably aware of that. The England players would not have refused to turn up for squad training a few weeks ago if Carling had been in a position to influence them. He wasn't even picked for the squad

But he was recalled last week and was first to say he'd be there, come what may. Rowell should re-install him as skipper, but I doubt if he will. If he did, Carling would be within his rights to tell them to stick the field-marshal's baton back in their rucksacks.

If it is not to be him, then let the new man be allowed to step forward to be identified. England has rarely needed a captain so urgently. Let's be seeing what he's made of.

After the phantom captain comes the simultaneous stand-off. Frano Botica's double existence with Orrell and Llanelli, who both named him as No 10 for their games yesterday, is another of those delicious vignettes that union's venture into the confusing world of commercialism has thrown up.

It is unfair to mock, but no critics of union's long and stubborn stand against professionalism could resist a smile at two major union clubs fighting over a rugby league player. They have a lot to learn about the wheeling and dealing that, regrettably, is part of their new world.

They should also guard against being too shirty with each other. After challenging the Welsh club's right to announce that they'd signed Botica, Orrell's secretary John Arrowsmith said: "Llanelli have come up here thinking that they are dealing with people in flat caps. They have found we are nothing of the sort."

Does he mean that people in flat caps are a bit simple? If so, what does he think the prevalent headgear has been in Llanelli this past century - bowler hats?

Swindon town FC have set a trend of sophisticated commercialism that clubs of all codes of football might care to examine. The Wiltshire club have announced that their ground is to become the first in Europe to house a casino. It will cost pounds 2m to build in the corner of the stadium, will be open all week and pay a pounds 130,000 annual rent to the club.

It could prove an additional attraction on a Saturday. Fans could pop in to try to win enough money to buy a stand ticket. The downside could be the burden on the Swindon team. It might be difficult to please a crowd who've done all their money on the roulette tables.

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