There was a time, when all was right with the world, when I knew without hesitation who the England rugby captain was. Bill Beaumont, Will Carling, Martin Johnson: names from my early rugby-watching days, through the formative university years and into my sports writing career that provided a reassuring sort of constancy.
From Test to Test – indeed, from season to season – there was little question who would be leading out the England team at Twickenham. They were characters to fill you with confidence; here were men who had done the job a few times and knew what they were doing.
But since Johnson lifted the Rugby World Cup in Sydney in 2003, that comfort of predictability has all but vanished. England have gone through 16 captains and with it, not by happenstance, a period of management turmoil and national soul-searching.
England dabbled with successors to Johnson. It didn't help that the Rugby Football Union (RFU) then put the legend himself in charge of the team. It would have been hard enough to match up to him without having to report to him too.
It seemed at one point that Steve Borthwick might be the chosen one but he was dropped as captain after 21 Tests, which included 11 losses. The response was to fall back on the old guard of 2003: Lewis Moody captained the side 11 times and Mike Tindall seven times including the now infamous 2011 World Cup campaign in New Zealand.
Then, with the appointment of Stuart Lancaster as head coach, the end of RFU infighting under a new chairman and chief executive and a renewed sense of purpose from the grass roots to the elite, along came Chris Robshaw. He was given the captaincy aged 24 – two years older than Carling at the same juncture –along with only his second cap.
What makes a good captain is hard to define. The Association for Applied Sports Psychology has had a stab at it, focusing on what it calls the three Cs: caring, courage and consistency. The first refers to the captain's ability to empathise with the collective as well as the individuals within it, the second to the guts to practise what he/she preaches and the third to the aptitude to communicate match strategy and execute it to the highest level, time after time.
It is about as accurate a definition as you will find anywhere but it is still insufficient because, as fans know, sport is so much more nebulous than that. It's why we love it. It is not an exact science.
This is especially true in team sports where a group of the most outstanding individuals failing to gel will lose to well-orchestrated opponents who, on paper, are inferior in every position.
And this is why I don't understand people who criticise Lancaster's selection of Robshaw with the argument that he is not the best open-side flanker in the country. That is not at all the point.
Moody, who had the unenviable task of taking over the position from the masterful Neil Back, believes Robshaw is the man for the job because of his incredible work rate, hard tackling and quality passing. Comparing him to Richard Hill, Moody describes him as the "complete package".
Some things you can't fully quantify. A good captain is one of those things. You know it when you see it. Despite that defeat to Wales in the Six Nations and his omission from the Lions squad, Robshaw still looks the part. He has something trustworthy about him. Whether it is the way he holds himself, the tone of his voice or the way others talk about him, it is hard to pin down. He verges on chivalrous.
The important thing is Lancaster, naming him captain for the 17th time against Australia, still has faith after once turning to Dylan Hartley (a 14-14 draw against South Africa in June) and twice calling on Tom Wood (wins over Argentina).
There are those who say that the longevity of the captains of old is history; that with the pace of the modern game Carling could not have held his position over 59 matches and eight years. Matt Dawson argues that one of the strengths of the 2003 World Cup-winning side is that there was not just one leader but several in key positions. He, along with Jason Leonard, Lawrence Dallaglio, Neil Back, Jonny Wilkinson and Phil Vickery all knew what it felt like to lead the national side out.
But there is still a greater value in consistency. Richie McCaw, the most capped Test captain in All Blacks history, is living proof. The way the England football team has tossed around the captain's armband – reaching high farce during a 2003 friendly against Serbia and Montenegro when it was worn by five players from Michael Owen to Emile Heskey – has demeaned the position in that sport. In rugby, it still matters who is captain. Call me old-fashioned but I find that hugely comforting.Reuse content