Stormers’ buck stops here ... no, there

Cape Town - They’ve been little, like Divan Serfontein, the scrumhalf who hoisted the Currie Cup three times in a row in the early 1980s.

And they’ve been large, like that gangly diplomat of the rugby field Morne du Plessis, or second-rower of the fifties Jan “Bull” Pickard who could be hard to understand with his fast-paced mumble although I gather you made damned sure you did.

Then there have been others like Corne Krige, who would gloriously disregard his own health and safety to lead the charge from the trenches, or Bob Skinstad, a model of carefree flamboyance who always looked on the bright side of life.

More recently, Jean de Villiers was a good ‘un too, up for a prank to lighten moods and engaging in the PR department, but able to turn on a “serious” switch in the dressing-room in the blink of an eye.

But one thing the Newlands faithful always knew about them: they were captains, in every sense.

So it is going to be quite difficult, I suspect, for Western Province/Stormers enthusiasts of significant duration, particularly, to wrap their heads around the idea of “co-captains” of the Super Rugby franchise in 2016.

Me, I’ll be giving Juan de Jongh and Frans Malherbe their fair chance, as I will the man who made the landmark - in these parts - decision to anoint them jointly, Robbie Fleck.

The head coach is a rookie at this key strategic level himself, given that he was only appointed with some haste following the Eddie Jones no-show fiasco, and it is mightily brave of him – others may choose more dissident vocabulary - to pin his captaincy faith not only in a novel duo, but both first-timers to the skipper’s (oops, sorry, skippers’) role in the SANZAAR competition.

At least De Jongh can boast lifting the trophy once in a Currie Cup final, when WP squeaked home 19-16 over the Lions at Newlands in 2014, albeit that the once grand old domestic competition is a much-battered, downgraded one these days.

But I will admit to having “outset” reservations about this splitting of the important chore.

Yes, there is a precedent; critics have inevitably already drawn attention to the fact that the Highlanders won Super Rugby for the first time last season with a pair of captains in Nasi Manu and Ben Smith ... coach Jamie Joseph had introduced the policy for the start of the 2014 campaign, reportedly believing in “sharing the workload between two complementary players”.

In that first year, with the leadership approach clearly on “trial”, the Otago outfit ended ordinary season with a humdrum 50-50 win-loss record, and it is obviously difficult to gauge whether the jump to 2015 success - though remember that the Highlanders had ended 13 points adrift of eventual showpiece hosts the Hurricanes - could be attributed in any way to gradual benefits of the captaincy policy being reaped.

Could it be that they just played good rugby on final day?

Perhaps this is, and will increasingly be proved, a naive or old-fashioned resilience, but I am fundamentally suspicious of captaincy by “committee”, and I do wonder how some of the great rugby leadership icons like Richie McCaw, Francois Pienaar, John Eales, Martin Johnson or Sean Fitzpatrick would feel about the idea of splitting and dispersing their quite natural skills in that department.

By my book, it just means more people to have to trust - OK, or even not to trust - and some awkward fudging of where the buck actually stops, especially in times of difficulty or when split-second tactical decisions on the field of combat, that simply cannot be pre-planned or envisaged, are required.

I cannot for the life of me believe that co-captains would constantly sing from the same song-sheet, so any player with a complaint or suggestion for one of them may struggle for a clear-cut answer or solution, given the need for response and unanimity from the extended mini-collective if the matter is deemed significant enough to need it.

Already it is interesting to learn that when De Jongh and Malherbe are in the same starting line-up, the former will lead the troops out of the tunnel: the cynic in me suggests one co-captain is already more ... um, equal? ... than the other.

For what it’s worth, my own clear-cut choice for skipper in his emotional swansong season after being part of the Stormers’ furniture since 2004 would have been that extraordinarily durable battler with simply no knowledge of an off-switch on match days or how to use it - Schalk Burger.

I may be biased because I have always been a disciple of his captaincy style (accepted, not everyone has to be).

He leads passionately from the front, something we have seen ample past evidence of in Super Rugby, and although he is not averse to the odd moment of brain flatulence when things are getting a bit feisty, there is also a refreshing sense of the unusual, the unexpected to his on-park decisions.  

Fleck says Burger’s experience will “definitely be tapped into” - they’d need their heads read if it wasn’t, eh? - but that he is too valuable a player to be tied down by captaincy.

I can’t agree. I suspect The Incredible Schalk only gets additionally amped by the responsibility of leadership.

The Stormers may be looking to the future - though I’ve heard that line spun many, many times before - with their contrary, dual choice for the task, but there’s also no time like the present.

They’ve missed a trick by not making the vastly seasoned Burger an active figurehead this season.

All that said, the proof of the pudding ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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