Rugby World Cup-winning sides are often defined by their captain, as teams become a reflection of their skipper. Only eight men have worn the metaphorical armband and lifted the Webb Ellis Cup, with each of them going down in history as an all-time great.
From Francois Pienaar receiving the trophy from Nelson Mandela in 1995 to John Eales defining an Australian dynasty in 1999, through Martin Johnson dragging England to 2003 glory as the only northern hemisphere side to triumph and Richie McCaw’s place as probably the greatest of all, the only two-time winning captain in 2011 and 2015 – these men have led from the front to cement their status as legends.
Saturday’s final between New Zealand and South Africa at the Stade de France offers another opportunity for two men to enhance their legacies but this particular match-up provides a fascinating contrast.
On one side, Siya Kolisi stands in the traditional mould of inspirational leaders. His story, rising from poverty in the South African townships to become the Springboks’ first Black captain – in some ways, a huge burden to bear – is both remarkable and distinct from his predecessors. Yet the aura he has and the love and respect he garners is very much in line with McCaw, Johnson, Eales or the two other South African men to skipper a World Cup-winning side, Pienaar and 2007 captain John Smit.
He made history as the first Black captain to win a World Cup four years ago and should he match McCaw by winning a second in Paris, there will be a legitimate claim to call him the greatest skipper of all time. Certainly, he engenders adoration in South Africa and adulation from the entire rugby world – it is almost impossible to sit in a press conference with him and not be impressed by Kolisi the orator and Siya the man, while he is also a titan on the field.
"Siya transcends the game of rugby – he’s a symbol of hope for so many,” explains ex-Springbok prop and World Cup winner Tendai Mtawarira. “He came from nothing and became somebody iconic in the public eye. He means so much for South Africa.”
Yet the man he will shake hands with at the coin toss on Saturday and who will walk his team out less than a metre away has often provoked a very different reaction.
Fairly or unfairly, Sam Cane has never captured the hearts of the New Zealand public in the same way that Kolisi has in South Africa. He’s largely unloved rather than beloved. And frankly, it’s not really his fault. His only real crime is that he’s not Richie McCaw but arguably the greatest player and certainly the greatest captain of all time is an unreasonably high bar to clear.
Cane is an exceptional rugby player. He would have to be, because you don’t make more than 90 appearances in the All Blacks back row without being incredible, but the often prevailing opinion from supporters was summed up in an on-pitch comment by Ireland flanker/wind-up merchant Peter O’Mahony during the Test series between the sides last summer – “you’re just a s*** Richie McCaw”, yelled O’Mahony to the flanker.
Cane became New Zealand’s starting No 7 when McCaw retired after the 2015 World Cup and assumed the captaincy upon Kieran Read’s departure following the tournament four years later. Following in the footsteps of McCaw, who had captained the All Blacks in 110 Tests, winning a ludicrous 97 of them, was an impossible job and he, along with coach Ian Foster, became a fall guy as performance levels and world ranking dropped during this current World Cup cycle.
There were regular debates about whether Cane deserved a place in New Zealand’s best starting XV, let alone as skipper, and when he was injured during the warm-up of the World Cup opener against France, many on social media rejoiced as they felt the team was stronger with Dalton Papali’i promoted to the run-on side instead. It’s worth noting that France won that game, handing the All Blacks their only loss of the tournament so far.
Now, they’re in a final and Cane was immense in both the quarter-final and semi-final victories. He may not have the raw athleticism of Papali’i but his work ethic, engine, grit, breakdown tenacity and dogged defence perfectly complement the skillsets of back-row teammates Shannon Frizell and Ardie Savea.
In the narrow quarter-final win over Ireland, Cane topped the tackle charts with 22 and earned a number of timely turnovers in perhaps the performance of his career, while he has a brilliant 94 per cent tackle success rate across the tournament as a whole. “I think, personally, Sam is made for these sorts of Test matches, in the tough Test matches he does a great job,” said head coach Foster after the Ireland win.
Forwards coach Jason Ryan expanded on Cane’s role in the build-up to the final. “Sam has really grown as a captain,” said Ryan. “He has really fronted in the last couple of weeks on the field. He has good conversations and he has a phenomenal leadership group around him as well which is an important part of it.”
He may never enjoy the unconditional love that his opposing skipper on Saturday does but becoming just the third All Black, after McCaw and 1987 winner David Kirk, to lift the Webb Ellis Cup would silence a lot of doubters.
Kolisi and Cane have taken different paths to reach this point but when they step onto the Stade de France turf for the Rugby World Cup final, both are playing for the same legendary status.
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