Phil Gifford: How All Blacks captains avoided potential disaster
22nd October 2021

OPINION:

If the two Sams, Cane and Whitelock, were less comfortable in their own skins, the unusual situation of Whitelock being captain on the All Blacks’ northern tour, with Cane, named as leader in 2020 but now a squad member, would have the potential to be a disaster.

Thankfully for the All Blacks both are as grounded and mature as anyone who’s ever worn the jersey.

There are similarities. They both grew up on farms, Cane outside Reporoa in the Bay of Plenty, Whitelock near Linton in Manawatu. Both were very young when they first made the All Blacks. Cane was 20, Whitelock was 21. Both quickly built a reputation for staying calm under game pressure.

But the most important common ground is in their attitude to leadership. When Whitelock was appointed as captain of the Crusaders in 2017 he told me that “what a lot of people don’t realise is that within the rugby environment, even if someone is named as captain, they rely on a number of other people to help them lead.

“I had a bit of time in the off season to get some thoughts together, and was able to put a plan in place as to how I was going to lead (the Crusaders), and other people helped me to do that.

“Being a tight forward if there was something going on, let’s say in our phase play, I’d always throw to someone that knows more about it than me. So having (All Black midfielder) Ryan Crotty there was great. I’ve played a lot of footy with him, and it was the same with (All Black flanker) Matt Todd. They were awesome.

“During a game if you have a message to deliver you need everyone engaged so you know they’re taking it on board.

“You can’t go out there as a captain and speak too much, because people will stop listening. So it was really great to have those two guys to deliver a message as well.”

Talking with Cane, not long before he was appointed All Blacks captain, he noted that in the current All Black camp all opinions were valued.

“I think that sort of culture and environment is the way society is trending in all aspects, whether it’s business or in schools,” said Cane. “They’re empowering people, so they have a sense of belonging, a sense of ownership, and in return they get the best out of them. There’s no doubt the All Blacks are leaders on that front.

“We say a form of leadership is to be vulnerable, and accept that you don’t know everything. It doesn’t matter where the right answer comes from, as long as we get there in the end.”

The two men will almost certainly be on the field together in the bigger internationals in Europe, where the concept of joint responsibility will be genuinely tested. If I had to bet I’d be putting money on their new roles not leading to any friction.

A reminder of how important character is when big decisions on selecting a leader are made came during the week with the sad news of the passing of Bob Graham. An outstanding player and man, he was from a remarkable family. His brothers John, an All Black captain and headmaster of Auckland Grammar, and James, who propped the Waikato scrum when they beat South Africa in 1956 and became the chairman of the Dairy Board, were both knighted.

In 1960 Wilson Whineray, the captain of Auckland when they won the Ranfurly Shield the previous year, led the All Blacks in South Africa. Bob Graham captained Auckland while Whineray was on tour.

Auckland coach Fred Allen then made a momentous decision. “I’ve always thought Wilson was the greatest All Black captain of them all. Now I’ve got the job of making the decision of whether I keep Bob, a wonderful footballer who should have been an All Black, as captain.

“Bob was a bit like Richie McCaw, always at the bottom of a ruck, always doing the hard yards. I had to tell Wilson that I was going to stick with Bob as captain, which is a hard thing to do, and hard on them.

“I got the two of them, said what was going to happen, and Wilson, being the wonderful man that he is just took it like a real gentleman. He stayed the same Wilson Whineray, and offered advice when it was wanted.”

A leadership template from six decades ago has never felt more relevant.

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