Finding Captain Fantastic

The mini-awards season is over and now the show piece of the AFL season is about to light up – Finals Footy. All the clichés start coming out as we head towards ‘The Big Dance’ (sorry, I couldn’t help it). With career defining wins and losses about to be played in a season that has been defined by equalisation (at least amongst the top 10 to 12 teams if you exclude Richmond), the intensity is expected to be breathtaking. So, what will be the difference? What will separate the contenders with the champions?

The first place everyone looks is the coach’s box. Tactics, player management, and an ability to make the right decisions at the right time during play are all going to have an influence. The counter argument to this is that the players know what they need to do by now and shouldn’t need exterior motivation. And coaches can’t lay the tackle or kick for goal accurately. There is a limit to their influence.

Maybe it’s the stars. Dusty, Buddy, Steele, Tom (no nickname) Mitchell… The game changers. They make the big plays but let’s face it – 21 other blokes can either make these guys look good, or cause the game to go past them.

Culture. History. Home Ground Advantage. Injuries. Form. They are all factors too, but none will define the results in this finals series.

Captains, however, are a different breed. They are one of the most influential characters in this soap opera. They are the one constant element throughout all the storylines. They are the Gandalf to a Tolkien epic. A Captain’s role cannot be underestimated, and the Captain able to hold their team to the highest standard will win. The Captain that is willing to do what others are not willing to do are going to be lifting the cup as the final act of season 2018.

The Captain’s influence is one that many misunderstand. Ex-players and journalists constantly remark on Leaders and Leadership Groups with clumsiness. The drivel is fascinating. A stream of buzzwords and disjointed statements meaning nothing (or anything) are rolled out. Some think that a good captain is a star player or is defined by being the grittiest. But it so much more than this.

Ultimately a Captain is player operating alongside the rest of the group. He is the Coach’s proxy on the field, constantly monitoring and giving to the team’s cause whatever it needs at whatever time it needs it. To be a winning Captain, this player needs to have a few traits. All these traits have more to do with actions than words.

Sam Walker’s body of work in this field is unsurpassed. Walker has collated a study of the most successful teams in world sporting history. One example he uses is Collingwood’s Syd Coventry, premiership captain four years in a row.  As Captain of Collingwood, Syd won 111 games out of 147, a winning ratio of 77% that is still unmatched to today. In 1927 he became captain and took the Pies to four straight – another feat never surpassed since. Syd was willing to do what others were not, including coming back to play two weeks after a fractured skull injury. This is what inspires team mates to play out-of-their-skin, not rousing speeches in the huddle before the game.

Coventry is chronicled as ‘lifting his team when they needed it’, sometimes being dirty, often being aggressive. Jock McHale (the Famous Coach of Collingwood at the time) is remembered as the master of this Collingwood era, but it was Syd that did the doing. One such intervention was to talk the team out of striking when Collingwood wanted to cut the player’s wages – twice. If it wasn’t for Syd’s intervention, McHale’s legacy never would have been.

Grittiness and toughness is a key element of captaining. Add to this the ability to break the rules whenever necessary. This is why Joel Selwood is such a critical factor for Geelong. Give him a millimetre and he will take everything! He will kick, ankle-tap, dive, and duck wherever necessary to give his team the ascendency. Breaking rules is not about being dirty, or injuring others. It is being creative and taking opportunities (or making them) without hesitation.

Trent Cotchin’s award for the best captain was my highlight of all the awards last week. And it wasn’t the fact that he won the Best Captain Award, it was what he said. When we think of the great leaders in history we think of Churchill, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King Jnr. These were amazing speakers, that created movements. They are also unicorns and should never define what a good leader is (mainly because it is impossible for any of us to be so ground breaking – it is not accessible). When accepting his award on MVP night, Cotchin fields some silly questions from some ex-player trying carve out a media career (keep working on it fella – you’ll get there one day). He then starts his speech with “I’ll whip something out quickly…”. After a few beers you can’t help but wonder what he was going be whipping out… Or, maybe that’s just my adolescent mind being exposed.

Anyway, what follows is a talk completely devoted to others. He highlights Richmond staff, including the boot-studder by full name and states that he is awe of them. His head is pointed down with small and diminutive body language, yet every cut of the camera to the audience shows us that every single person is locked and hanging on every word. Cotchin speaks about love, caring for others, and vulnerability. It is all about the collective, delivered swiftly and with complete humility. This was not a media act. This was a true leader letting everyone in behind the curtain of how a Captain’s mind works. Similar to Coventry’s story, the year Cotchin was named captain (2013) was also the year Richmond reappeared in the finals for the first time after a drought for the club that dated back to 2001. I see this as no coincidence.

Richmond have been the stand out side this season, while Cotchin has been the stand out Captain. He has been the load-bearing beam that supported the talented youngsters and stars on every line of the field in their efforts to perform. Constant low-key communication, direction, support, and acts of courage to lift his team have been on display all year. His stats may be down from previous years, but I would argue that Cotchin has been one of the most influential players in the whole league this year.

In the finals, which Captain will make the biggest difference? I have highlighted Cotchin as the stand out example. Selwood has done it year-in-year out, and Geelong are quietly stalking this finals series. Shannon Hurn of the West Coast Eagles has also had a standout year. He guards that backline with brutal efficiency, but it is his calmness he exudes over his younger charges that helps make the West Coast a real contender.

Collingwood come into this finals series with a lot of fans. Scott Pendlebury, labelled as Mister Consistency and dependable comes into the finals under a sickness cloud. His ability to galvanise a squad handling bereavement (Travis Varcoe), drug scandal (Sam Murray), and key injuries (take your pick) will be the biggest test of Pendlebury’s captaincy so far. Based on this, it wouldn’t surprise me if they go out
in straight sets. Pendlebury is a Rolls Royce, but is he a Premiership Captain? We’ll know more in the next few weeks.

Then there’s the Hawks. It’s all about Clarkson isn’t it? He is the current Master and has overseen one of the quickest and most devastatingly effective re-builds in modern history. It makes the rest of the league puke with envy. Jarryd Roughead has become the seasoned statesman of this squad with a flock of young performers budding around him. He will be at the Hawks next year, and with that settled, one of the most dogged competitors in the league will have a say in these finals. He pops up, and gets the boys over the line. Even though this Hawthorn squad may be a year or two off being able to contend, their double chance has given them a good look. My instinct is that Roughy won’t allow standards to drop and if they are ‘in it’ with 10 minutes to go in any finals match, expect the skipper to suddenly appear and make the difference.

Melbourne are the first example of Co-Captains in the top 8 – Nathan Jones and Jack Viney. Both are clearance beasts, but it is hard to comment on Viney’s influence due to long term injury. He may or may not be a part of it. Jones’ story is of suffering. He is brimming with hurt from years of September holidays. On the field and training track, Jones never shuts up. He is pure energy and the team reflects his personality. He is in the zone for this finals campaign. Expect Jones to do ‘whatever it takes’ to lift his side. I am expecting big things from him. The Dees have an opportunity to be courageous and ride Jones’ coat tails. It will be salivating stuff.

Josh Kennedy. Sydney. Always there. Always a factor. Like Hawthorn, they make the rest turn green. The Melbourne’s, GWS’s, and even Richmond’s will be looking over their shoulders at the Finals stalwarts warily. Kennedy is a gun as well as a very proficient leader. He knows what it takes to win.

That just leaves GWS. Oh dear. If GWS wins the Premiership this year, then my whole theory has been completely debunked. I don’t see the traits discussed earlier in this piece in Callan Ward. He is a good player, but not a Premiership Captain. That may sound harsh, but he has not been able to push that talented squad to the limits of it’s ability. Too much rubbish is tolerated, and I feel this will be exposed in the finals series. I am personally not a fan of Co-Captaincy, and even though I think Phil Davis is a wonderful footballer, he hasn’t been able to garner any real culture or winning mentality as a leader over a long period of time. When he left the field against Sydney in the minor round opening the door for Buddy to ballistic, this was very ‘non-Syd Coventry’ and told me a lot. GWS won’t win a flag until they sort out their on-ground leadership.

The Captain is a critical element in winning. This finals series will be influenced heavily by those captains that stop opposition momentum at crucial times. Captains that lay the tackle when the opposition are sling-shotting to a certain goal. Captains that see a player getting beaten and give them a little word to nudge them back on track. Captains that give away a free to allow their defensive structure to set up. Captains that don’t allow emotions to infiltrate the team and distract from what needs to be done.

These are the key match ups I will be watching during this finals series. It will be fascinating. A lot will go unnoticed, but trust that the constant small acts of the Captains will undoubtedly shape the AFL Finals action.


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