Former Bok coach, the late Kitch Christie, famously continued to select captain Francois Pienaar ahead of better players in his position simply due to the unifying leadership skills Pienaar had and the presence the man evoked when entering a changeroom. Pienaar was the first name that Christie would pen onto his team sheet when collating his fifteen.
Jake White did the same with John Smit, as did Peter de Villiers, even going as far as selecting Smit out of position in order to accommodate him. It was simply a case of knowing that the cost of not selecting him would be greater than selecting him, simply due to captaincy skills, regardless of playing skills. Not that Smit was a mug on the pitch; far from it!
What we have to learn to accept is that incumbent Bok captain Jean de Villiers may not even make the World Cup in 2015, such is his propensity for injury (though he jinxed us last year with a clean bill of health!). And then what? Could we not pre-empt this now, this year? If he does make it and he is still fit and the best in his position, then no problem of course.
But we ought to hedge our bets and limit the downside sooner rather than later, otherwise, the Boks might be in the same situation they found themselves in 2011, without wanting to sound disingenuous to historically the most successful captain the Boks have had, in Smit.
While Smit was head-and-shoulders the best choice as captain pre- and post-2007 World Cup and for the Lions series in 2009, it was debatable whether it was right that he was keeping Bismarck du Plessis out of the team once he was switched back to hooker in late 2009. If there was ever a time to give Smit the golden handshake and jettison him, it was then.
However, I for one backed the decision to retain him at the time, but only because, without Smit, the Boks were not the same as a group as they were under Victor Matfield. Smit had that magic touch whereas Matfield tended to lead by example. By the time Smit had lost form in a bad way in late 2010, it was probably too late to change leader in the year leading up to the World Cup as it would have caused a huge disruption, much akin to Nick Mallett’s treatment of Gary Teichmann in 1999. It really was a case of damned if you do; damned if you don’t.
Bok coach Heyneke Meyer finds himself in a similar situation now, having made de Villiers his skipper last year on a temporary basis and then as the full-time leader at the conclusion of the successful England series. Knowing full well that his centre chief is prone to injury and that 2-and-a-half years lies between now and the World Cup, Meyer could either keep him at the helm or replace him with someone younger and less injury-prone such as Francois Louw (though his playing for Bath is an issue) or Adriaan Strauss.
An outside chance would be Pierre Spies, but less so given his injury and also poor performances of late. Meyer might also be reluctant to appoint Strauss or even returning hooker du Plessis as there is only one of their position in the team.
Perhaps the real issue is that such undesired emphasis has been placed on the appointment of the Bok captain that it can literally be the thread that binds the team and hence impacts results, psychologically at least. The All Blacks have the likes of Kieran Read, Andrew Hore or Keven Mealamu to call on; why shouldn’t we?
It’s time the Boks have a few realistic backup captains to assume the role seamlessly should de Villiers lose form or get crocked.
This article originally appeared on The South African in 2013.