Side Entry: Bok leadership is not a simple either-or thing

Simnikiwe Xabanisa
Simnikiwe Xabanisa

The recent launch of the Springboks’ World Cup jersey seems to have reminded some rugby fans that they aren’t entirely sold on their captain’s credentials to lead the team to Japan.

A social media pundit (they apparently exist) this week suggested that Siya Kolisi be replaced by Lions captain Warren Whiteley as Bok captain because he hadn’t inspired the Stormers.

It’s only in South Africa that a Springbok captain is on trial for his captaincy when the Boks aren’t even playing, but rugby hasn’t always been a logical pursuit in these climes. The thing is, if the Boks are to get anywhere near the Webb Ellis Trophy, they will need both Kolisi and Whiteley to do it.

One can see why it’s easy to take potshots at Kolisi. He comes across as a reluctant, self-conscious leader who tries to overcompensate for that by being overly democratic in his delegation of the leadership duties.

It doesn’t help that, from a tactical perspective, he also struggles with what has become the modern captain’s conundrum: kicking for poles or for touch when awarded a penalty close to the opposition’s 22m line.

Some would point to the Stormers trying to run a try in from behind their try line in their game against the Bulls last weekend as being a case in point when it comes to Kolisi’s tactical indecision, or even naivety.

But another way to look at it would be that it was a risk the Stormers, whose start to Super Rugby has been a slow-burner, needed to take the bonus point risk to make a discernible move up the crabs-in-a-bucket South African Conference.

Warren Whitely. Picture: Gallo Images

Be that as it may, Kolisi may be reluctant, but he is a leader. His great strength as captain is an ability to unite players of all colours behind him because he is that rare thing in rugby – a genuine human being.

Where Whiteley comes in is in the direct supportive role to Kolisi. Of all the other leaders in the team who could also be considered for the captaincy, Whiteley comes across as the one man who is not actively auditioning for Kolisi’s job.

When you listen to Kolisi go on about “Wazza” in his press conferences, there’s a suspicion that’s who his right-hand-man is within the team. Whiteley is not one to throw his weight around, but he seems to influence people all the same.

The catch is where Whiteley fits in in the team.

The number eight does not appear to be in Rassie Erasmus’ preferred starting line-up, and, given that he’s barely been able to play three games in a row without being injured in the past two seasons, there’s no guarantee he’ll be fit to board the plane for Japan to dispense his quiet brand of “inspiration”.

Of course, those who, like me, still have their judgement clouded by the romanticism of the Boks’ win over the All Blacks in Wellington last year, may still have a suspicion that a loose trio featuring Kolisi, Whiteley and Pieter-Steph du Toit felt more balanced than one with Duane Vermeulen at number eight.

But the problem is that, when you have Thor in your set-up, you unleash him.

For those thinking Whiteley could go to Japan in what was the Bob Skinstad role at the 2007 World Cup, where he was the cheerleader and the captain’s whisperer all rolled into one, that role seems to already belong to hooker Schalk Brits.

Whatever the permutations, if the Boks have a chance of winning the World Cup, Kolisi and Whiteley have to be there

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