Scottish Rugby News and Opinion


Oh Captain, my… wait, who is my Captain?

Stuart McInally
Stuart McInally is congratulated by teammates after scoring his second try for Scotland vs Samoa at BT Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh. © Alastair Ross / Novantae Photography

Having a “leadership group” may be lingua franca among elite sports teams these days, but much like “Highlander”, there can be only one captain. They are the one who leads the team out. They’re the one who sits beside the coach at press conferences, they do the introduction of any visiting dignitaries, and they’re more likely to draw flak when things go awry.

They’re also usually someone whose name may as well be penned into the team sheet, a vital cog in a well-oiled machine. Unless, of course, you’re Scotland. There were three leading candidates going into the World Cup – Greig Laidlaw, John Barclay, and Stuart McInally.

As we know, it was McInally who was given the nod, possibly due to the fact he was the most likely to be in the starting XV, even allowing for the “Toony’s Tombola”-effect.

But he too eventually lost his place for the deciding match against Japan (to Fraser Brown), and there have been misgivings in some quarters about his suitability as a captain. Particularly, his “referee management” has been called into question, whereas Laidlaw was constantly in the ref’s ear at every breakdown, and Barclay was never afraid to let the referee know what he thinks when it’s captain consultation time.

With Laidlaw and Barcs now having called time on their international careers, it leaves McInally as the top contender to continue in the role, but what makes a good captain?

I’ve drawn up a list of 4 archetypes, it’s by no means definitive, but it might help us look at the traits a coach is looking for when choosing their on-field leader.

Type A – the on-field coach

A tactical thinker who has the ear of the coach, they’re the voice on it. Due to their needs to impose the coach’s will, they will be paramount to directing play, so most likely a half-back. Will nit-pick at the ref over elements of the opposition play they’ve highlighted in pre-game analysis.

Can often be heard using the terms “go through our processes” and “stick to the gameplan”, both pre and post-match.  

Previous example: Greig Laidlaw
Potential incumbent: Finn Russell (yes, I know it seems mad, but he is Toony-incarnate. We could start calling him “Top Cat of the Rave” if it happens.)

Type B – the battleground general

An unerringly hard, big bastard, who the troops will gladly follow into battle. Is able to motivate those around him through a mix of fear and respect. Gives good speeches.

When the chips are down, they’ll do the grunt work to show that the opposition line can be broken. If a skirmish breaks out, they’ll be first in to offer “handers”, and will grab the biggest bastard in the opposition by the scruff of the neck, just to prove he’s not scared.

Referees will listen to them, because they’re scared of them too.

Previous example: Al Kellock
Potential incumbent: Angry Jonny Gray – but only when he’s angry

Type C – the Starman

The team icon, the one who has their face on billboards and makes the flashy stuff look ordinary.

Looks to motivate the team through just being so bloody brilliant that the rest of his teammates think: “Well if he can off-load like that, I’m going full Nakarawa too!”

Can encourage hubris, such as mentioned above, though, and may get petulant upon realising that the rest of team aren’t up to his level. (*cough* Sergio Parisse)

Previous example: Chris Paterson
Potential incumbent: Stuart Hogg

Type D – the crafty veteran

Been around so long, you half expect them to walk onto the pitch wearing an eye-patch and smoking a cigar personally gifted from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s humidor. May even insist on being called “Snake”.

Uncompromising in attitude, they’ve bided their time until earning the goddam right to lead the country out.

Tactically astute because they’ve been playing Test-rugby since some of their own teammates were sticking Duplo bricks together and licking snot from their top-lip, they know how to get away with murder.

May inadvertently call a fresh-faced referee “Son”, rather than “Sir”, when pulled up on their infractions.

Previous example: John Barclay
Potential incumbent: Hamish Watson

We’ve still got quite a way to go until the next international window, but who do you think is the right man to lead Scotland onto the pitch in Dublin when the 6N comes calling?

53 Responses

  1. Been some people calling for Jamie Ritchie to be given the job. Great player with real leadership potential, but as well as being very young for the job there’s the issue of positition. Barclay was a natural leader, but as a flanker often found himself on wrong side of the ref. It’s hard to influence decision making when you’re the guy being put under the microscope.

    For me I think Hogg might do the job. He’s a natural leader – as long as he gets out the habit of trying to do it all by example, which we’ve seen a bit too much of recently.

    1. Hogg is a natural leader ? Where do you get that from ? That must be a wind up. Not the opinion of the dressing room and he can not lead by example. What is more he irritates the referees. I could see Russell but not under Toony.

      Toony has regularly picked Gilchrist who never took up the role through injury. That would be my long odds bet for 2020 6N , no real facts to back it up other than what I have stated , but feel he will be in the mix.

      1. I believe it was VC who picked GG as his first captain, only for GG to have a broken arm (twice). I don’t recall GT ever making GG Scotland captain (might be wrong).
        It’s odd to think that VC came into the Scotland camp and saw GG as captain, while (reportedly) RC came to Edinburgh and told GG he wasn’t seeing much of anything…so maybe my recollection is wrong.

      2. I think Gilcho lost a lot of what I can only describe as oomph following that injury lay off.

        He’s still a very solid player but I remember him looking like a titan when he broke through.

        With the rise of Skinner and Cummings and both Gray brothers still in the mix as well as Craig and Hunter-Hill being strong prospects i think Gilchrist will have enough on his plate competing for his place in the 23 without worrying about captaincy.

  2. Easy – Ritchie all the way. Time to have someone with the bite and determination which has been missing for years. I would love it if Toony is plotting a plan built on the backbone of the past where Scotland sides were no push over – early 90’s stuff – in fact pure Scottish DNA. This is probably the only way Toony could keep his job if the side turn up and fight back with no messing – Scottish rucking powerful forwards silky skills in the backline – simple – job done – not much to ask for!!

  3. Laidlaw didn’t “manage” refs, he just annoyed refs.
    McInally I thought a good shout, didn’t pan out that way

    Barclay should have captained Scotland for many a year, thanks to Scott Johnson he didn’t get the caps never mind the captaincy near as much as he should have.

    Lessons from the past and elsewhere.
    It doesn’t need to be a veteran-2 of the best captains in my memory were Carling and McCaw, both appointed at 23/24
    It doesn’t need to be a player nailed on for a starting place due to ability alone. Francois Pienaar certainly wasn’t.
    It doesn’t need to be a star man (your comment on Parisse is out of order IMHO). Paterson was star that didn’t really shine except at goal kicks of less than 35m. Had Hadden dealt with him differently it might have been different, but there we go. He was a poor captain for us, TBF usually in a very poor team poorly coached.
    If you have a tactical genius who echoes the coach and commands starting berth, the choice is very very obvious. We don’t have that obvious choice.

    1. Sam Warburton is another example.

      Think Ritchie should be chosen. Others have been tried and found wanting – good reason why Laidlaw kept being picked was his leadership. Ritchie is both a natural leader and a consistently excellent performer. Toonie needs to rebuild the squad around the likes of him, guys who show a serious will to win and can help us take the next step from competitiveness to bloody-minded toughness.

  4. I am intrigued by the idea of Hogg or Russell, contrary to what some might think both show some excellent leadership ability, and more as the get older.

    But Richie has captained at every level. He is one of those players who do not just step up every level but thrive in the extra responsibility. He is a player who would run through walls for the coach and team and expect the rest to do the same.
    His record shows he has leadership ability, he leads mainly by example so far, he has been marked out as a future leader from an early age but as I say his record shows he will thrive on more responsibility.
    we need to think in terms of RWC cycles – time for a new captain to bed in – or to change him for another.

  5. 1. Nailed on starter.
    2. Has respect of teammates and opponents.
    3. Leads by example.
    4. Experienced but young enough to hold the captaincy till the next RWC.
    Hamish fits the bill. Jonny calling the lineout and Finn calling the backs moves.
    Of course we don’t really know who on the team is leadership material as we’re not in camp, but pinball for me.

    1. Watson…a very good player and a team player..but not a captain.
      ‘An Angry’ J gray?…thats just funny. If he is a captain…anyone is. He should just focus on improving his own flaws.
      Hogg?….will still be playing pranks when he is 60….and thats about as serious as you could take him as a captain.
      Russell?…can barely coordinate and manage himself never mind a national team.

      For me…it is, or the likes of, Sam Skinner or Jamie Ritchie…they need to be players 1st on the team sheet and players that instigate the drive and ambition to push players on when its needed…and have age on their side to evolve into the role whilst playing 1 or 2 RWCs. Laidlaw wasn’t the best 9 to play for Scotland….but he was a captain..and gave it what he had.

      1. What a load of negative ill-informed rubbish. Hogg was the victim of pranks, not the prankster. That was Barclay. Was he taken seriously?

      2. Now now , ‘Ill informed ‘!!!! On what basis is Ruggers ill informed? I am calling that out , he has a different opinion to yours , you only need to say so without being offensive.

    2. I would add in that it’s difficult to be national captain if you don’t regularly captain your own club team! For example Barclay was the man when he captained Scarlets to the title.

  6. There are a few options for me.

    1st pick = Fraser Brown (battleground general)
    issue = Toony would need to decide to start him regularly.
    2nd choice = Mcinally
    3rd choice = Ritchie
    Wildcard = Skinner (but not until he is back playing regularly)

    Ritchie is the long term option, Brown would be my short term.

    1. I agree with you Neil. I think the captaincy could make Brown reel in some of his more hot headed tendencies. He knows what the opposition is up to in the scrum and breakdown and he’s not shy on letting the ref know. If he’s captain it gives his nagging of the ref some legitimacy. He’s tough, physical, experienced and leads from the front. I think on form he will be the first choice 2 for the 6N.
      Long term Ritchie.

      1. Wouldn’t Brown have been Glasgow captain by now if he was really captain material? … Ritchie for me.

  7. If it’s a nailed on starter the only options are Russell, Hogg and Gray. I think they might continue with McInally though.

  8. In a year or two when he is a “nailed on starter” Cummings has many of the required attributes and would be good. He was captain of the very good U20 squad, many of whom are now in full Scotland squad. I share the worry that Ritchie is a “dark arts” back row which could make the ref handling trickier!

    1. Conversely handle the ref management well and reap the dark arts rewards…see McCaw for an example.

    2. Cummings is a decent shout imo…showed he is mature enough for test level already.
      I hoped Hunter-Hill would have progressed more…as he looked a natural captain…from that grouping.
      Fraser Brown?…no thanks. mentally up and down like a yo yo. Not much of a team guy. Good no 2 though.

      1. Yeah I’d spotted that too. Ritchie did skipper at both U18 and U20 level but the main captain of the team when it got impressive results like beating Eng for the first time was Cummings.

  9. Another vote for Ritchie here. His performance against Japan clinched it for me when many around him were wilting and he just got better and went full-on bastard mode. Hogg isn’t bright enough. Refs may struggle to understand Russell, anyway he doesn’t need that added responsibility. I’d keep McInally as vice captain, he can do the nice guy stuff like press conferences. Cockerill made Bradbury Edi captain when he arrived so presumably he’s got some potential there.

    1. I really like McInally, alwa have. But honestly I’ve rarely if ever seen a player so out of his depth in a press conference as his last one. difficult circumstances but it was awful.
      I am fine with the idea that the team captain does not need to be put up at press conferences if we have someone who does that better

    2. As always , spot on , Captains need to be intelligent , articulate , calm and lead by example. No drama queens , dummy spitting or tantrums. That rules one of them out but it is Walter Mitty who is picking.

  10. Another vote for Ritchie here; gives everything, hard as nails, good skills, has the smarts, mentally resilient. I don’t think any of the others listed, or mentioned, tick all of those boxes.

  11. one thing I managed to forget to say earlier, and should above his other attributes make him a nailed on starter for those who want that. Of all the Scottish players around at the moment, Richie is the one the opposition least like playing against.
    He doesn’t scare them like a Hogg or a Russell, but he is serious awkward squad at any tackle area or breakdown or maul – like a better all round Bob Harley in his prime or a PoM, and a better all round game than either

  12. Ritchie for me as well. Show faith in the young guy to lead us through to the next world cup. Actually thought he should have been given Edinburgh captaincy a couple of years ago but Cockerill went with Bradbury instead…

    Russell as vice captain to organise the attack and McInally and Hogg as part of the ‘leadership group’ tasked with leading by example, galvanising the team etc

    Would love to see Townsend picking these guys in the next year and then sticking to it. Show some faith in a fast, young team and then focus on continuity and let them gain experience and grow together.

  13. There is no other option that can be taken seriously other than Ritchie. Let him feed the desire and determination to the squad. Game plan – is simple but powerful, patient and has confidence something we have been missing for sometime and something Ritchie is built upon

  14. Like the idea of Ritchie. He’s got some Mongrel in him (something we’re badly lacking IMO).

    Some of the best captains going have been back rowers (McCaw, Pienaar, Warburton, etc). I remember watching a match where Dallaglio stood chatting to the ref about a breakdown offence while casually holding an opposition player by the scruff. Infuriating. And Brilliant.

    For me Ritchie is the only one we have with that kind of snarl. And to use an old cliche, if you’re good enough you’re old enough.

    And you never know, maybe seeing him in action will bring a bit more of that mongrel to one or 2 others. Permanent Angry Jonny even!

  15. Obviously when the squad meet they will review the positives of the W.C where angry Johnny will be told get angrier!

  16. I don’t disagree with anything said about Ritchie but just to play devils advocate. He’s only got 14 caps the next world cup is 3.5 years away, why not let him get another 10 caps under his belt, spend a 6N and summer tour as VC. Maybe make him captain in the Autumn or next 6N.
    I think he would probably thrive as captain even if made right away but there is a small risk that it could be too early so why take that risk given that we have time?

    1. because as I said above, it gives him a full RWC and have time to bed in someone else if Richie did not work out.
      I don ‘t want to be going in to he next RWC with a new captain. We hung on to Laidlaw too long last time -Barclay was supposed to take over but got injured (and lucky to be on the plane after that)

  17. Sure but Townsend doesn’t and we can’t afford to be stuck in gear or go in reverse.who would you put as captain then Sam?

    1. I’d give Fraser Brown the chance for this 6N, with Ritchie and Hogg VC.

      As you say Sceptic 9 we don’t want so go into the next world cup with a new captain so we probably need a group of players to have a go over the next cycle. I also don’t feel captains are tied to coaches.

  18. Russell is IMO probably the form 10 in world rugby at the moment, some of his plays for Racing are absolutely stunning. Have a sinking feeling it won’t quite transfer to Scotland with a less dominant pack and not quite the same level of players around him but we will see. Having said that, I don’t think putting the extra weight of captaincy on him is the right thing to do at this time as it could backfire badly. Leave him to do his job and run the game – he will probably have to take on place kicking duties as it is.

    From the other suggestions in the article, I really don’t see Gray as a natural captain. Let him organise the forwards, but I don’t think he should be the one dealing with the ref.

    Watson I also don’t think is likely in that role.

    I think Hogg gets a lot of undeserved abuse on here – he is a much more rounded player than a few years ago and has matured – but again wouldn’t see him as long term captain and 15 probably isn’t the best position.

    Fully agree with Ritchie – he is young but I think we could do with some consistency at captain and potentially a long term option which has a huge number of benefits. Back row is a great position for the captain to be playing in as well. Don’t really see any other outstanding choice at the moment.

  19. This subject deserves a serious article, rather than one that’s trying and failing badly at being funny. It’s not very accurate either. Laidlaw was a good leader but he wasn’t good at managing the ref. Ritchie deserves to be in the conversation now, not a few years down the line.

  20. I’m not sold on all this talk of Jamie Ritchie for captain. Happy to be proved wrong but a few questions:
    Why isn’t he captain of Edinburgh? Cockers has picked McInally, Pyrgos, Bradbury, Gilchrist, Barclay to captain the capital side this season.
    Is he a nailed on starter? Obviously there is a bit of rotation at Edinburgh so ignore the club scene. For Scotland I am not sure he’ll get picked (every time) over Bradbury, Fagerson or even Wilson at 6, and certainly not consistently over Watson at 7.
    Is he a leader? Nobody knows apart from his teammates and coaches. Maybe some of you have inside knowledge but has he even been part of the conversation in camp?
    Don’t get me wrong – he has the other attributes (respect from teammates, coaches and opposition), leads by example, experienced yet still only 23.
    BUT there is more to being the captain than being a fans favourite. If the man isn’t up to being captain at club level why would we think he’s up to it at test level?

    1. If I remember correctly (happy to be proved wrong) Sam Warburton wasn’t the Blues Captain when he was picked to wear the armband for Wales. Can’t argue that he made the step up.

    2. that list of Cockerill captains (add in Groom and McKenzie) tells you more about Cockerill’s ability to identify a captain and stick with him than anything else.
      I know which opponents dislike playing against most.
      Anyway as with Carling and Pienaar, truly great captains, never first picks on merit.
      BTW I think you are wrong about Richie being picked over Watson on merit. I would pick him every time now.

  21. My vote would be for Russell. He’s experienced and world class. I also think he’s an honest guy who speaks in a clear and straightforward way. We also need someone who can speak up and disagree with Townsend if necessary (which I think he would do).

  22. What is apparent more often or not is how inadequate players are at communicating to team mates at crucial times. Doesn’t help that often their life skills are limited since they have played rugby only as a profession from the a young age. A greater impact perhaps is how they are coached. How much are players given the opportunity to give their opinion and encouraged to communicate or is coaching quite autocratic? I can only guess that coaches are not facilitating skills to develop their leadership skills. Throughout games effective communication is essential. Some simple tasks from pass me the ball to assessing their playing and considering how to steer the team when required. If this is left purely to the coach then struggling teams will remain on the back foot for too long.

    Who should be captain? I’m not in a position to judge. McInally does appear to feel the weight of the responsibility. Perhaps he could be a good captain but is thrown into the deep end as a result of coaching techniques.

    1. Rugby coaching for the last 15yrs in my experience is all about communication.

      Players talk far more than they used and have the importance of it drilled into them.

      It’s second nature now.

      1. The communicate far too much , off the pitch that is , winding each other up on social media.

      2. To be able to say pass to me is one thing but critical thinking and influencing those around you is so different. On the pitch when POOPs happening it’s not often your see a player step up and try to address the problem and motivate others. I believe a good captain and vc needs to be more than just leading by example. Someone with the confidence to communicate to the ref when required, be able to see how the game is panning out and make adjustments to others as it goes. The latter is developed with close work with coaches but independent thinking is required.

  23. After mulling it over. They should try Johnny Gray as captain this 6 nations. Only guaranteed starter in pack. He needs to be more vocal and forthright, and this should be used to bring him on. Next season, he’s off to Exeter where has benefit of Baxter and getting to know other refs. Will bolster his Lions claim and that good for Scottish rugby. Scottish Alun Wyn Jones.

    1. Otherwise stick with McInally. Looked to struggle with climate in Japan. Has Cockerill and hope better for experience.

  24. In todays game where injuries and replacements are frequent, I don’t like the idea of a ‘single captain’. It should be ‘horses for courses’. Don’t think any of the players mentioned are as ‘nailed on’ as some people like to think. There are natural leaders and there are ‘appointees’, and McInally is the latter for me. There is also the issue of the captaincy leading to loss of form due to ‘PR responsibilities. That said, it should be a call based on natural leadership, and not on whether they’ve gone to the right school!

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